Ripon City Council has withheld ‘rent’ payments to Harrogate Borough Council as a ‘bargaining chip’ for negotiation in a tense stand-off over the lease of Ripon Town Hall.
At a heated city council meeting, members warned that in paying historic outstanding debts to Harrogate Borough Council for the maintenance and running costs of the building, the city council could lose its power to negotiate the terms of a new lease, that were described by one councillor as ‘draconian,’ and criticised as placing too big an onus on precept payers for the structural upkeep of the Grade II listed building.
Harrogate Borough Council has stressed that the new lease and management agreements are totally separate from the outstanding costs, and that the terms are still being negotiated and have not been finalised.
In a statement, the council declined to comment on concerns that the new lease is too onerous on Ripon tax payers. Speaking at the city council meeting last week, Coun Andrew Williams (Ind, Moorside), said: “There is no provision for our invoices to be paid until we get the whole matter resolved, and we can’t resolve the matter at the moment because the new lease which we’ve been offered, would leave us in a situation where we could be liable for paying for a percentage of the roof repairs and other matters relating to the structure of the building.
“No commercial organisation would take a lease on those terms. We cannot take a lease on these terms because it would be punitive on our precept payers, and therefore the situation remains unresolved.
“You don’t remove the one bargaining chip that you’ve got when you’re going into a negotiation. You negotiate from a position of strength, not weakness. If we pay up to date, there is no incentive on Harrogate Borough Council to resolve the issue of the new lease.”
But Coun Mike Chambers (Con, Spa ward), said the outstanding payments ‘should not be held over Harrogate council’s head,’ and emphasised that Harrogate council is more than happy to discuss the terms of the new lease and the concerns associated with it.
He said: “As I understand it, Harrogate Borough Council are not holding us to any lease. They have said that they are more than happy to discuss the lease.
“Whether you like it or not, we owe them a considerable amount of money, and that needs to be paid. There is good will being shown by Harrogate Borough Council saying they will discuss the terms of the lease, but the rent needs to be paid. Then we can get round the table, and thrash out the new lease once and for all. We need to get our bills paid and move on in a sensible fashion like sensible, competent people.”
Coun Stephen Craggs (Con, Spa ward), added: “In any negotiations in the court of law, if you turn up with a clean bill of health and you are not in debt, you come out better than if you are a debtor in negotiations. In the immediate term we should pay what we owe.”
Coun Williams proposed that the city council seeks legal advice regarding the terms of the new lease.
He said: “If we can’t reach agreement, we have to find alternative accommodation, and there would be costs associated with us having to move, and if we’ve paid Harrogate council’s costs up to date, that leaves us financially exposed because we are then going to have to bear the costs of moving, and that moving is being imposed on us by Harrogate council’s insistence upon terms of the lease that we simply can’t sign up to.”
Coun Pauline McHardy (Ind, Minster ward), said: “I think our tax payers here pay enough without having to go into this sort of thing.
“We cannot put them in a position where they are going to be disadvantaged by a lease being signed like this that actually commits the people of Ripon to the repairs of this Town Hall.”
In a statement, a Harrogate Borough Council spokesperson said: “Although Ripon City Council does not pay rent for its occupation of the town hall, it is liable to pay a contribution towards the maintenance and running costs.
“This is a contractually agreed arrangement and has been in place for some time. Unfortunately, the city council is overdue with paying these costs so we are now in the process of recovering them. This would be the same for any one of our tenants.
“The new lease, and management agreements, which are totally separate from the outstanding costs, are still being negotiated so we have no further comment to add on whether it is onerous or not.”