Harrogate and Leeds councils still at war over proposed new conference centre
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Proposals to build a convention centre close to Leeds’ First Direct Arena, on the site of the old Yorkshire Bank headquarters, will be debated again by city councillors this week.
The idea, which first came to light earlier this year, has caused upset in Harrogate, where business leaders feel the development threatens their town’s economy.
Harrogate Convention Centre (HCC) says the “size and scale” of Leeds’ plans will draw big gatherings away from its own venue.
At a meeting in August, centre director Paula Lorimer claimed analysis suggesting the impact on Harrogate would be minimal was “flawed, inaccurate, out-of-date and in some areas totally wrong.”
Despite further talks taking place between the parties since, no middle ground appears to have been reached.
Leeds planning officers, drawing conclusions off the back of further studies, insist the effects of the development on Harrogate will be “reasonably negligible” and have recommended the development be approved.
A report prepared for councillors ahead of next Thursday’s crunch meeting said HCC “do not agree” with the analysis carried out.
They’ve indicated they would not oppose the building of a smaller conference centre in Leeds, as they say the venue in its current form would offer 42 per cent more space than they can offer in Harrogate.
However, the proposals have not been adjusted in size.
The Harrogate Hospitality and Tourism Association, along with six of the town’s hotels and four local councillors have also objected to the scheme.
Under the scheme, Leeds City Council would be originally responsible for running the proposed venue.
Meanwhile, a working group is being set up to steer the future of Harrogate Convention Centre as the venue approaches a crucial time of change in its 40-year history.
Senior officials and councillors from Harrogate Borough Council and North Yorkshire County Council will come together to discuss the convention centre’s £49 million redevelopment plan and how it could be funded, as well as how the venue should be run in the future.
It has previously been suggested that a limited company could be set up to take over the day-to-day business of the venue which is set to come under the ownership of the new North Yorkshire Council in April.
County council leader Carl Les said this would be one option that is explored by the working group as he also acknowledged there could be risks involved in the £49 million redevelopment plan.
“We will look at everything connected with the convention centre,” he told the Local Democracy Reporting Service.
“I’m sure that there are some risks involved and that is why we want a working group.
“We are very conscious that this has been a Harrogate Borough Council project until now and because it is going to come to us in a short space of time we want to better understand what options there may be going forward.”
His comments come after the county council’s executive yesterday gave final approval for the spending of £3.3 million of taxpayer’s money on final designs for the redevelopment plan.
Prior to this, more than £1.5 million has already been spent on other design, business case and feasibility works.
A final decision on the redevelopment plan is expected next summer, but there are lingering questions over how it could be funded after cash for the convention centre was left out of North Yorkshire’s £540 million devolution deal much to the dismay of local leaders.
A separate bid for £20 million from the government’s levelling up fund has been made for the venue, however, Harrogate is ranked as a low priority area in the fund.
Paula Lorimer, director of Harrogate Convention Centre, said the levelling up funding would be a “game changer” for the venue if awarded later this year as she also thanked the county council for its support in progressing the final designs.
“This is a very important step for us and both parties agree this is something we need to work together on,” she said.
“They have listened to everything we have put forward and asked all the right questions, and I’m very much looking forward to working with them.”
The launch of the working group comes as the convention centre is facing a new threat on its doorstep in the form of Leeds City Council’s proposals to build a new conference venue at the site of the former Yorkshire Bank HQ.
A decision on these plans was previously delayed after a wave of objections from Harrogate Convention Centre and the district’s business leaders who fear the plans could drive trade away from Harrogate.
And Ms Lorimer said she is now preparing to make the same objections again when the proposals return to a city council meeting on 3 November.
She said “constructive dialogue” had been held with Leeds officials, but her concerns over the size of the city’s proposed venue and its impact on Harrogate Convention Centre remained unchanged.
Ms Lorimer said: “When we were first spoken to about this venue it was 2,000 square metres – we didn’t object and we told Leeds City Council that. Then suddenly it became 10,000 square metres.
“We continue to seek reassurance that the scheme will go back to the original size, but they are going to push ahead.”