Value for money or 'creative accounting' - Harrogate Civic Centre row deepens

Building Harrogate Civic Centre may have been the easy part, as the political fall-out deepened this week. We look at all the sides of the argument.

Friday, 27th November 2020, 4:26 pm
Updated Friday, 27th November 2020, 4:30 pm

When Harrogate Borough Council unveiled a new report into the costs of its multi-million pound new civic centre earlier this week it must have hoped the whole controversial question had finally been put to bed.

That’s unlikely.

A new report says the net cost of Harrogate Civic Centre was £6.25 million, which amounts to £2.47 million less than budgeted and represents a “massive saving” to council tax payers.

Even before the report has been put to a meeting of the council’s cabinet next Wednesday, opposition politicians have been quick to dismiss its results.

The report concludes that the total cost of constructing the civic centre from 2015 to 2017 was £11,516,200, just £56,000 more than than the original contract sum for the work and in line with the fixed term contract that Harrogate Borough Council signed originally.

For good measure, once other matters - including the proceeds from the sale of existing council offices including Crescent Gardens, Victoria Park House and Scottsdale House, are taken into account - the report calculates the overall cost of Harrogate Civic Centre has been £2.47 million below budget.

At the end of the day, the report says, the net cost of the project is reduced to £6.25 million, which amounts to £2.47 million less than budgeted and represents a “massive saving” to council tax payers.

In addition to this £2.47m, the report says operating a modern building has enabled the council to make further annual operational savings of almost £1 million, achieved by moving from separate, old, and inefficient offices to the new civic centre.

But Harrogate’s Lib Dems have long been unimpressed with the entire idea of selling the council’s previous headquarters at Crescent Gardens in favour of a gleaming eco-friendly new build at Knapping Mount.

And their reaction to the Harrogate Civic Centre report this week has been blunt.

“It appears,” Coun Pat Marsh said without offering background details, “that the council is using some very creative accounting in trying to claim this project was ‘under budget’.”

It is unlikely that as council leaders were pictured in their hard hats during construction work back in 2016 they would have expected to still be justifying the new building’s very existence four years later.

But even before a single spade hit the ground at Knapping Mount, some were questioning the wisdom or necessity of moving from Crescent Gardens.

In 2015, Harrogate Civic Society raised its concerns that:

As a valuable brownfield site, it might have made more economic sense to allow the sale of the Knapping Mount site for housing instead of a civic centre as it would have raised a considerable sum;

The existing council headquarters at Crescent Gardens could have been updated to meet modern standards more cheaply than planning an entire new civic building;

The loss of a Mayor’s Parlour in the plans for Harrogate Civic Centre represented a blow to civic pride.

But Harrogate Borough Council says bringing all council services into a single site rather than five separate locations, represented not only the best value for money for council tax payers but was simply more efficient, too.

It says this has proven particularly important during this year’s pandemic.

Harrogate Borough Council’s deputy leader and cabinet member with responsibility for resources, Coun Graham Swift, said: “Putting Covid-19 aside, if we had not embarked on this project, we would still be in five separate offices costing an additional £1m a year to run and requiring expensive and ongoing maintenance to make them habitable.

“As it is, we have an amazing new civic centre which we can all be proud of.”

Harrogate Borough Council says it has taken longer than hoped to reach the final assessed account position because of the financial collapse earlier this year of the company which built civic centre.

HFC’s parent Harry Fairclough Limited went into compulsory administration in July.

Coun Graham Swift, said: “Cabinet made a strong commitment to publishing the overall costs of the civic centre project, but this has not been possible before now while we worked with HFC to rectify several defects with the building that it was obliged to fix. That was complicated by the contractor being put into administration earlier this year.

“The fact that the office accommodation project is £2.5 million under budget is a great result for the council tax payer of the district.”

How Crescent Gardens still remains at heart of the row

Controversy over Harrogate Civic Centre may focus on the question of costs but, in a way, the seeds of dissension lie in the original decision to sell Crescent Gardens.

While Harrogate Lib Dem leader Coun Pat Marsh has blasted the budget for the building of the council’s new headquarters at Knapping Mount as “disgracefully high,” she also stuck to her argument that Harrogate Borough Council should have stayed at Crescent Gardens.

Coun Marsh said: “It appears the council is using some very creative accounting in trying to claim this project was ‘under budget’, a budget that was always disgracefully high.

“This project could have been achieved by remaining in Crescent Gardens and reconfiguring the inside and its structure.

“All the council departments could have been accommodated on that site thus achieving the annual savings of £1million and retaining a much-loved public building.

“Instead we have a white elephant, a building that holds no civic pride.”

Henry Pankhurst, a past chairman of the Civic Society who was heavily involved and concerned about the move from Crescent Gardens at the time, said he remains sceptical about the need for the new Harrogate Civic Centre.

Mr Pankhurst said developments since the project began now showed the council could and should have stayed at its previous home at Crescent Gardens.

He said: “It isnow said that the finances for the new civic centre have worked out very well.

“I can’t comment on the arithmetic but any money that the council unexpectedly has to spend on its services is very welcome.

“But, at the time of the decision to move out of Crescent Gardens, we were told that the structural condition of the building was such that renovation, adaptation and putting an additional floor to create modern council offices there was not possible. It seems rather odd that the new Crescent Gardens owners, Impala Estates, are planning just that, for a range of state-of-the-art offices of different sizes and configurations.”

Current talks over the real possibility of devolution and local government reorganisation in North Yorkshire leading, potentially, to the abolition of Harrogate Borough Council appear to have reignited the debate.

Coun Pat Marsh said: “Harrogate district will either end up with a North Yorkshire unitary authority, based in Northallerton, or an East West Yorkshire unitary authority, also based in Northallerton. Either way, Harrogate Civic Centre will be redundant. It is a waste on all levels.”

What do you think?

Was the move to Knapping Mount the right one for Harrogate Borough Council or should it have stayed at Crescent Gardens? Send us your views to [email protected]

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