‘Golden opportunity’ for local councils to take back Harrogate district buildings and services

Local councils across the Harrogate district are to be given the chance to take back control of public buildings and services under what has been described as a "golden opportunity" for communities.

By Jacob Webster
Friday, 11th February 2022, 9:56 am
Ripon Town Hall.
Ripon Town Hall.

When Harrogate Borough Council was created in 1974 it took over ownership of several key assets including Ripon Town Hall and Knaresborough House.

But almost half a century later the borough council is now coming to an end as it will be scrapped and replaced with a new unitary authority covering the whole of North Yorkshire from April 2023.

These major reorganisation plans have stoked widely-raised concerns over the future of many buildings which are key meeting places for communities and also play a crucial role in delivering local services and supporting the visitor economy.

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Ripon Independents councillor Pauline McHardy on Wednesday made calls for the borough council to kick-start the process by offering support to local councils which may want to submit any takeover plans.

She told a full council meeting that this would be a "golden opportunity for assets across the district to be transferred back to their rightful owners".

She said: "In 1974, the people of Ripon and its council had no say in their assets being transferred at no cost to Harrogate Borough Council.

"Now we want them given back to parish, city and town councils for the same as Harrogate Borough Council paid - nothing."

Councillor McHardy put forward a motion outlining her requests and was supported by the Liberal Democrats including Knaresborough mayor councillor Christine Willoughby who said it "can not be right" for local councils to pay for buildings which they once owned.

However, after a stormy debate both parties ended up voting against the motion which was amended by Conservative council leader Richard Cooper who said local councils would be able to "procure" the assets.

This sparked questions over whether local councils would have to pay, but councillor Cooper said this "does not necessarily mean cash changing hands".

He also said the motion first put forward "simply isn't legal" as the borough council itself can not produce takeover plans for its own buildings to be run by local councils.

Councillor Cooper said: "Seeking to get better services for residents run from these assets is where we should be focusing.

"If parishes can do it better and put together a delivery plan - great.

"I wish them all well and good luck in managing those services from parish, city and town councils. But what I am seeking to do is make sure they get control of assets and run great services from them legally, quickly and sensibly.

"The original motion I'm afraid just won't do that."

The prospect of a new town council for Harrogate is highly likely under the reorganisation plans and something which has been supported by all political parties.

Among the key assets which the town council could take over include the likes of the Stray, the Royal Hall, Royal Baths, the Pump Room Museum, the Sun Pavilion and more.

There are also questions over what will happen to council offices, not least to mention Harrogate Borough Council's new civic centre headquarters.

At the moment, Harrogate and Scarborough are the only major towns in North Yorkshire not served by a parish or town council.

North Yorkshire County Council has previously said services such as parks and markets could be run by a town council, while areas including planning and highways may be handled by a Harrogate and Knaresborough Area Constituency Committee on the new unitary authority.

It has also said it is supportive of the idea of a Harrogate Town Council, although this would require a community governance review and could lead to a local referendum with a vote from residents.

By Jacob Webster, Local Democracy Reporter