Why a referendum may be needed to protect Harrogate's 'crown jewels'

The prospect of a new town council for Harrogate looks almost inevitable once a unitary authority takes over North Yorkshire in 2023 - the biggest shake up of local democracy in almost 50 years.

By Graham Chalmers
Thursday, 3rd February 2022, 5:20 pm
Updated Thursday, 3rd February 2022, 5:28 pm
What will happen to Harrogate's 'crown jewels' such as Crescent Gardens after local government reorganisation takes place in North Yorkshire next year?
What will happen to Harrogate's 'crown jewels' such as Crescent Gardens after local government reorganisation takes place in North Yorkshire next year?

Harrogate Borough Council’s leader Coun Richard Cooper said the council supported the idea of a new town council, albeit with reservations.

“I can see advantages to a Harrogate Town Council and those taking the discussions forward with the new authority will need to articulate the case,” he said.

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“We have not yet seen a compelling business case upon which the public can take a view but the council has agreed to submit a request in early 2023.”

The news follows widely-raised concerns over the future running of Harrogate’s interests ahead of the process to scrap North Yorkshire’s two-tier council system and create a single ‘super authority’.

The process of moving to a new unitary authority began in July last year when the Government announced North Yorkshire's two-tier councils - including Harrogate - were to be scrapped and replaced with a single big authority by 2023.

Coun Pat Marsh, leader of the opposition Lib Dem party on Harrogate Borough Council, has backed the formation of a Harrogate Town Council - stating she would “support the potential for town and parish councils to be able to deliver services and manage local assets if they so choose”.

Among those key assets Harrogate is keen to look after are some of the region’s ‘crown jewels’ which play a crucial role in the town’s visitor economy and are currently owned, run or supported by Harrogate Borough Council.

North Yorkshire County Council argues that when it takes on more power as the new ‘unitary authority’ next year, residents should not notice much of a difference.

Afterall, Northallerton already runs 80% of the services enjoyed by council tax payers in Harrogate, Ripon, Knaresborough and elsewhere across the county.

It’s also on record as not being opposed to the creation of new town councils in areas lacking them currently in the county.

Coun Don Mackenzie, the county council's executive member for access and transport, said: “Town and parish councils will provide essential democratic representation locally below the level of the unitary authority.

“The absence of a town council for Harrogate and Scarborough means there could be a democratic deficiency for the residents of those two towns.

“I am not aware of a precise timetable for the creation of the two town councils, but it will certainly be a priority.”

The county council's position is not one that has been challenged much, but neither has it prevented concern about Harrogate’s future under this major local government reorganisation.

Groups such as Harrogate Civic Society are, in particular, concerned over what will happen to the likes of the Stray, the Royal Hall, Royal Baths, the Pump Room Museum, the Sun Pavilion and more.

Stuart Holland, co-chair of Harrogate Civic Society, said: “The town has an amazing collection of listed buildings in public ownership and the enthusiasm and local knowledge that can go into preserving and developing these assets should stay local.

“Thousands of visitors are attracted to Harrogate and a town council would be able to enhance the efforts made to retain its gardens and parks.”

Harrogate District Chamber of Commerce goes further in raising fears that, when the new unitary authority takes over, the town will lose its voice.

Martin Gerrard, Harrogate Chamber of Commerce President, said: “With Harrogate Borough Council ceasing to exist next year, and local government coming under one, unitary authority, I fear unless we have a town council, the voice of local business could go unheard.

“Last week, the county council executive voted in favour of the Harrogate Station Gateway project without taking into consideration any of the concerns and alternative proposals put forward by us, other business groups, Harrogate Civic Society and residents’ groups.

“I feel that what this has done is add further importance to Harrogate being represented properly going forward by elected members whom put the town, and those whom work and live within it, first.

"In addition, and if at all possible, I’d like to see this new body being able to tap into the valuable expertise of council officers who will become part of the new unitary authority.

“We want Harrogate to benefit from new investment, but not without consideration of all interested parties.”

What might happen next?

At the moment, Harrogate and Scarborough are the only major towns in North Yorkshire not served by a parish or town council as the county prepares for the launch of the new unitary authority in 2023.

North Yorkshire County Council has previously said that, as happens now, matters like planning may be handled by a Harrogate and Knaresborough Area Constituency Committee of county councillors.

It has also stated it is open to the idea of a Harrogate Town Council, though it could only happen if a community governance review took place - and that is likely to mean a referendium of what residents think of the whole idea..

The county council’s chief executive Richard Flinton pledged: “There will be a bigger role for town and parish councils for areas which don’t currently have them.”

But the leader of Harrogate Borough Council this week warned, that, if handled badly, a new town council could become an empty mouth-piece.

“The important thing for residents is what a Harrogate Town Council would do,” said Coun Richard Cooper.

“I do not think a town council will garner a great deal of public support if it is merely a tax-raising refuge for single-issue campaigners, former councillors not elected to the new unitary council and bickering politicians. To my mind, bringing politics into city and town councils has been negative.

“When I look at town councils like Boroughbridge I feel these are the better example. I hope that if a town council for Harrogate is established, it can leave the politics to others and simply deliver well-defined services with a minimal tax take.”

With the clock ticking, how much say Harrogate will have in the future remains unclear.

And that’s even before the question of what happens to Harrogate Convention Centre, Crescent Gardens, Harrogate Civic Centre or the wide range of important arts sector and cultural institutions currently under the stewardship of Harrogate Borough Council is dropped into the mix.

Will existing parish and town councils in Harrogate district get a bigger role?

Existing parish, town and city councils in the Harrogate district may find a bigger voice in the new unitary authority set to run all of North Yorkshire from next year.

Currently, the likes of Ripon City Council, Knaresborough Town Council , Pateley Bridge Council, Boroughbridge Town Council and Pannal and Burn Bridge Parish Council fall under Harrogate Borough Council.

Once that is abolished in 2023, the remit of the likely new Harrogate Town Council will be just that - Harrogate.

There may be no guarantee of extra money or extra powers for parish and town councils come the big bang of local devolution in North Yorkshire next year but it will make the role of the bodies across the district in representing local interests even more important.

Coun Don Mackenzie, North Yorkshire County Council’s executive member for access, said: “I would expect that councils like Ripon City, Knaresborough Town and those of our other towns and parishes will have an enhanced role in providing locally held views to the unitary council once the borough council ceases to exist.

“The county council’s successful bid to establish a single council for North Yorkshire prioritised local decision-making arrangements where appropriate.”