‘Let’s work together to make Harrogate shine again’

Is Harrogate town centre on the decline?
Is Harrogate town centre on the decline?

There was a time not so long ago when Harrogate was rated the happiest place to live in the UK for three years in a row.

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But is the shine starting to fade on a town admired nationally and, even, internationally for its quality of life and high standards?

The last time Harrogate topped the charts in Rightmove’s Happy At Home Index survey was 2015.

Results bragged about residents “feeling safe, proud of their home and happy with the area’s general upkeep.”

But a trend towards the negative has emerged on this newspaper’s letters page in an unexpected summer of discontent.

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While acknowledging there are problems, Harrogate Borough Council leader Coun Richard Cooper is convinced Harrogate is still “a fantastic place.”

A perfect storm of negative factors in the town centre has triggered a wave of increasingly anxious letters to the Harrogate Advertiser in recent weeks.

Worried residents have resorted to words not normally associated with Harrogate - “embarrassing”, “ dire” and “depressing.”

Coun Cooper said:“Yes, there is more we can and should do but Harrogate is a fantastic place to live. The solution is a community solution with traders, shoppers, residents and the council all working together.”

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The concerns expressed by readers centre on five perceived issues associated mainly, but not exclusively, with the town centre:

1: Empty shops and scruffy streets;

2: Street begging and rough sleeping;

3: ‘County Lines’ crime and violent incidents;

4: Anti-social behaviour on the streets;

5: Traffic jams and road works.

It’s not just readers who are worried, business are, too.

One independent, G23 menswear shop on Cambridge Road, is so fed up, he’s talking about moving out of town.

Owner Graham Jack said: “Having beggars and anti-social behaviour in the Oxford Street area is having an impact. Visitors are saying the town centre is looking rough. Small independent businesses are already up against it. We might even have to move to Ilkley which doesn’t seem to have these sort of problems.”

But well-known names in Harrogate say not only does the town still have a lot more positives than negatives but action is in the pipeline to improve the town centre and deal with most of the problems.

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Chair of the Stray Defence Association, Judy d’Arcy-Thompson, agrees, believing there is still nowhere in the world quite like Harrogate.

She said: “Harrogate has so many great assets. I have travelled extensively and lived in lots and lots of different places, but Harrogate is very special. What it has cannot simply be bought online.”

Local authorities may be keen to emphasise that Harrogate is still a great place to live but, in recent weeks, our readers have used phrases such as “shameful and tatty” and “profoundly depressing” to describe the town they live in.

Letters pages do tend to be based on complaints.

The difference with these ones is more than just their growing number. It’s the reaction of the rest of the town.

And it is not just on the pages of the Harrogate Advertiser where concerns have been raised.

Ten years ago a blog entitled “thoughts on anti-social behaviour outside Baltzersen’s” written by popular Harrogate cafe owner Paul Rawlinson about the troubled state of affairs on Oxford Street, would have been met with a uniformly hostile reaction.

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Instead, a lot of the responses were positive with many people praising him for his honesty.

No one has to look far for the causes of mounting dissatisfaction about the direction Harrogate is heading.

Gripes are centered on the town centre, based on the number of empty shop units, the increase in street begging and incidents of anti-social behaviour. Grumbles have also been fuelled by the new phenomenon of County Lines crime, stabbing incidents, arson attacks and a series of road works in and around the town centre.

For some, the arrival of the tents in Oxford Road was the last straw. The end result is a perception that Harrogate may have stopped being such an island of civilisation in troubled times.

Instead, some of those troubles are landing on our doorstep.

But has Harrogate really lost its charm and appeal? How big are the problems? And aren’t plans already coming into place to deal with them?