Feature: What is behind Harrogate Christmas Market dispute

Nothing says Christmas in Harrogate more than its annual festive market... but not this year, perhaps.

Friday, 6th August 2021, 3:39 pm
Harrogate Christmas Market prior to the Covid pandemic.

No one saw it coming, except of course, for Harrogate Borough Council itself.

Before last week’s announcement that the hugely popular Harrogate Christmas Market would not be granted its usual licence on the strong advice of the emergency services, there had been no build-up of controversy or angry calls for change on social media.

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Yes, there had been quiet mutterings over the years about the space on Montpellier Hill being a bit crowded and too far away from town centre traders but these had been lone voices, overwhelmed by the sheer success of the November market.

It is, perhaps, for this reason that there has been such a heated reaction to the unexpected decision made by Harrogate Borough Council.

Devastated organisers who have successfully attracted up to 85,000 visitors each year at Harrogate Christmas Market in the past, say that even though they can in theory apply to hold the event elsewhere, the decision makes no sense on a practical or economic level.

According to Harrogate Borough Council, expert advice on such matters as security risks from terrorism and health risks from Covid, makes the market’s usual site on the Stray at Montpellier Hill a wholly inappropriate location.

But a close look at the statements of the leading players shows safety concerns are far from the only faultline in this dispute.

There a number of bones of contention between the two sides, some of which are by no means new.

These include:

Location:

Although Harrogate Christmas Market has proven a great success at Montpellier Hill, Harrogate Borough Council’s dislike of the site is not new.

As well as claiming it spoke and exchanged emails with organisers about holding the 2021 event elsewhere as far back as early March, council leader Coun Richard Cooper said the council had been unhappy with the market’s location for some time.

“For several years, including this year, we have suggested other locations to the event organiser but these have been refused.

“The Christmas Market is not cancelled but our first preference is to hold it in the town centre.”

But organisers Brian and Beryl Dunsby and Director and Chairman of Harrogate Christmas Market Limited, Steve Scarre, remain convinced Montpellier Hill is the best site for the event.

In a joint statement, they said: “We need a large and versatile site for the market.

“The network of ‘tarmac’ paths on the Montpellier Hill site surrounded by grass enables the mix of many visitors and the erection of marquees and canvas stalls on the same site.

“We believe that the totally open nature of this location with free access in all directions provides a safe location for the event whilst being as close as possible to the town centre shops, hotels, restaurants and cafes.”

They also point to an independent report in 2016 by Consultant Malcolm Veigas into possible alternative locations, commissioned by the council, which concluded that: “The Stray is the best location for events in the town and as such should continue to be used as the location for the Christmas Market.”

Harrogate Borough Council says that assessment primarily focussed on footfall and the location, and made almost no reference to evacuation procedures, visitor safety, risk of terrorism etc. It also didn’t take into consideration feedback from partner agencies, such as North Yorkshire Police and Yorkshire Ambulance Service.

Safety and security:

The number one reason for refusing permission to hold the Harrogate Christmas Market on Montpellier Hill is security and safety, with the council highlighting “the risk of overcrowding”, the lack of “counter-terrorism measures” and “the ongoing risk of Covid-19”.

Coun Richard Cooper said: “The decision has been made to protect people’s lives on the basis of what the emergency services tell us. The safety of residents, traders and visitors must come first.”

But the organisers complain this is news to them.

Speaking in a personal capacity only, Mr Scarre said: “Planning for this year’s event began in January following various meetings in 2020 with external stakeholders, such as the Safety Advisory Group (SAG), emergency services, Harrogate Council and North Yorkshire County Council for the 2020 market, which was cancelled due to the pandemic.

“The police had already stated that they were satisfied with our anti-terrorism arrangements (for 2020) as a “proportionate plan”. Since then, in February 2021, the National Threat Level was reduced from ‘severe’ to ‘substantial’.

“This year’s anti-terrorist mitigation measures are a mirror of those included in the 2020 Event Plan and discussed with the Police as stated. Harrogate council did not raise any concerns about anti-terrorism measures when they responded to our Event Plan on June 10, 2021 which we had submitted on May 5.

“The first indication of their concern was made in their letter last week informing us of their refusal to grant a licence.”

In response Harrogate Borough Council says the licence decision about Montpellier Hill is not solely there's - they are reacting to concerns which have been raised by the emergency services throughout the licence application process and as part of the feedback from issues following previous events.

The council says if they allowed the event organisers to ignore those concerns and granted a licence then we could be potentially dealing with a major incident.

The safety of residents, traders and visitors had to be put first.

How the decision was made and announced:

Harrogate Borough Council says it has worked hard with the Harrogate Christmas Market to allow it to continue at another location - and it is still open to doing so, if the organisers show willing.

But the team behind the Christmas Market remain unhappy about how the situation has been handled by the council.

Mr Scarre added: “For the council to put out a statement on social media 90 minutes after sending the email to me with their decision, and then to subsequently say in the second statement shared on social media that they would not be changing their decision... That is not what I would call working together.”

But the council says, despite what has been advertised, it hasn’t cancelled the Christmas Market.

What they have said is a licence cannot be granted for the event to take place at its current location on Montpellier Hill based on feedback, including that of the emergency services.

They say there is no reason why the organisers can’t look for an alternative location to hold the event.

While the councils understand the Christmas Market has an impact on the local economy, and it sympathises with businesses, we simply cannot allow an event to go ahead if it is not safe.