Harrogate council leader 'refused to sign' devolution deal over funding for town's convention centre

The leader of Harrogate Borough Council says he refused to sign off on today's historic devolution deal for North Yorkshire hailed by others as a "huge opportunity" because of his concerns over the future of the town's convention centre and vital conference trade.

By Graham Chalmers
Monday, 1st August 2022, 11:12 am

The announcement of a North Yorkshire and York Mayor - who would sit above two new but separate unitary authorities once all district councils in the region have been scrapped next year - has been hailed by North Yorkshire County Council as a major step forward and a boost for the county's economy.

North Yorkshire County Council’s leader, Coun Carl Les, said devolution was a "huge opportunity" which would make a real difference to people's lives across North Yorkshire.

Harrogate Civic Centre, the headquarters of Harrogate Borough Council which will be scrapped next year and replaced by a North Yorkshire unitary authority and a new North Yorkshire and York-wide elected mayor.

But Coun Richard Cooper, who supports the general principle of devolution, said the Government's announcement that of a 30-year devolution deal, which will see North Yorkshire and York run by an elected Mayor in 2024 as part of a major shake-up of local government in the county, was of concern because it failed to guarantee funding for a hoped-for multi-million pound redevelopment of Harrogate Convention Centre.

"I am pleased that the devolution deal for York and North Yorkshire is going ahead today," said Coun Cooper.

"That is because I support the principle of decisions being made closer to the people affected by them. It is better that we decide locally where a significant amount of cash is spent than ministers and civil servants in Whitehall.

“However, the draft devolution deal falls short of what many of us expected in that it does not deliver guaranteed funding for the convention centre redevelopment.

"The convention centre attracts more than 150,000 visitors a year, has an economic impact of £35million and supports thousands of jobs across the region.

"Following redevelopment the potential economic impact and number of jobs supported in the region significantly increases.

"Many local businesses also rely on the convention centre for their income and for every £1 most attendees spend on their event, another £5 is spent locally, benefitting the wider hospitality trade.

Coun Cooper continued: “It has also been recognised that many attendees of the convention centre say that they will return at a later date, no doubt exploring everything North Yorkshire has to offer; from the vibrant market towns to the picturesque seaside resorts.

"So, even though the Harrogate district is a quarter of York and North Yorkshire's economy and the convention centre is a key part of that, this is not merely a Harrogate-centric issue.

“Therefore, when I was asked to sign a letter in support of this devolution deal I said that I would not do so.

But North Yorkshire County Council’s leader, Coun Carl Les said he looked forward to devolution "bringing real and tangible benefits to the region”.

“The chance to secure a wide range of decision-making powers as well as bringing in millions of pounds of investment for North Yorkshire is a huge opportunity for us all to shape our own future for many years to come," said Coun Les.

“It will make a real difference to the hundreds of thousands of people who live and work in North Yorkshire, driving future prosperity and much better opportunities that are so important to everyone.

“Whether it is improving skills and education, bringing in more investment to the region or helping improve transport links and providing much-needed affordable housing, the proposed deal would enable us to take far greater control of our own destinies.

“An elected mayor representing both York and North Yorkshire would be a powerful figure to have a seat at the table for further negotiations with the Government, bringing real and tangible benefits to the region.”

Coun Cooper, the leader of Harrogate Borough Council which will be abolished in 2023 along with all the county's district councils, said the whole situation was a "sad moment" for himself.

He added that he also had some concerns for the future interests of the town.

"Although I support the deal as an improvement on the past this is still a very sad moment for me," said Coun Cooper.

"I was sold devolution on the prospectus that it would involve major funding for our conference industry.

"I was then sold Local Government Reorganisation - the abolition of Harrogate Borough Council - on the basis that a single council for our area was needed to unlock that devolution deal.

"I was told that a North Yorkshire footprint for that new single council was too large.

"And what we have ended up with is no dedicated devo money for the convention centre, no Harrogate Borough Council and a new council based on a North Yorkshire footprint.

"Still we are, as they say, where we are and the thing to do is look forward with positivity.

"There are other funding streams to which we can bid for the convention centre redevelopment.

"Indeed, we are already finalising a bid to the Levelling Up Fund and will be lobbying the new Mayor for funding from as yet unallocated devo money.

"While I am optimistic that we will find the funding necessary it is intensely disappointing that this isn't simply recognised as part of the devolution deal as many of us believed it would be.”

North Yorkshire and York devolution announcement: The main points

The new mayor of North Yorkshire and York would receive £540 million pounds of government cash to invert in skills, housing and transport in the region over 30 years to drive growth and take forward local priorities over the longer term.

The new mayor would also take over the role of North Yorkshire Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner and have an annual £18m budget to spend.

There would be new powers to improve and better integrate local transport, including the ability to introduce bus franchising, and an integrated transport settlement starting in 2024/25.

£7 million-worth of investment to enable York and North Yorkshire to drive green economic growth towards their ambitions to be a carbon negative region.

More than £13 million for the building of new homes on brownfield land across 2023/24 and 2024/25, subject to sufficient eligible projects for funding being identified.

More power to drive the regeneration of the area and to build more affordable, more beautiful homes, including compulsory purchase powers and the ability to establish Mayoral Development Corporations.

The integration of the York & North Yorkshire Local Enterprise Partnership (Y&NY LEP) into York and North Yorkshire Combined Authority to push business interests.

The Government says its aim of creating the region-wide mayor and combined authority – which would be made up of North Yorkshire and City of York councillors – will be to create greater control of strategic investment for jobs and skills and infrastructure in North Yorkshire.

But a number of authority opposition members in North Yorkshire and York have raised concerns that devolution itself has degenerated into an intensely political process.

The leader of the authority’s largest opposition group, the Liberal Democrats and Liberals, Coun Bryn Griffiths said he had reservations over devolution and the combined authority and mayor that went with it.

Coun Griffiths said: “The only way to get significant money from the government at the moment it seems is via combined authorities. I don’t think it’s the right way to do things, but it’s left areas without one in between the Devil and the deep blue sea.

“I don’t think mayors are very accountable, but if it gives access to funding it’s a balancing matter between accountability and funding.”

Independent group leader Coun Stuart Parsons said: “It’s worrying in that it’s a political process as that means a change in government in a couple of years’ time could lead to all sorts of problems with it.

“A new government might not want things to work that way, and then the governance rules that appear to be set in place for it would be an absolute farce.”

Labour group leader Councillor Steve Shaw Wright said while he believed devolution would benefit North Yorkshire, he was uncertain about the timing.

He said the combination of launching a new unitary authority, starting negotiations with City of York Council and holding mayoral elections was “an awful lot all at once”.

Coun Shaw Wright said: “I know there’s financial benefits, but it’ll not repay what we’ve had cut over the last ten years.”

He added suggestions that the combined authority would feature just two York and two North Yorkshire councillors was “a recipe for disaster at the worst and deadlock at the best” and that a larger more politically representative decision-making body would be more effective.