A group of around 150 people met yesterday evening (1 July 2015) to discuss Harrogate Borough Council’s proposed plans to move staff to a central location in a newly built £9million office.
Harrogate Borough Council (HBC) declined to attend the meeting saying that they had been given little notice and there were other commitments.
The move would see Crescent Gardens being sold to developers and the current Knapping Mount site demolished to make way for the new office block. The future use of Crescent Gardens is unclear if it was sold.
The discussion was led by the Harrogate Chamber of Trade and Commerce, the Harrogate Civic Society and the Federation of small business.
A decision will currently be made by the HBC full cabinet on 15 July 2015.
The meeting looked at the background of the Knapping mount site. The land had been listed in the local plan as suitable for family houses, on the understanding that the existing house remained. The local plan was thrown out by the central government as being inadequate and is now being reworked. The meeting felt that the land would be ideal for housing and that only HBC would have been given planning permission for an office on the site.
The Harrogate Chamber said that they were not necessarily for or against the new office build, but there was a lack of information available on the need for it. The Federation of Small Business had a similar view.
The Harrogate Civic Society were concerned that Crescent Gardens, a building of great local historical and cultural importance would be lost if it went private ownership. The Crescent Garden’s building was remodelled in 1931 and has the capacity to take an additional two floors.
The new office block would not have any of its own parking and there plans to use 160 spaces from the HIC.
It was the view of the room that councils going to a unitary authority was inevitable as budgets from central government were squeezed. If that move did happen then Harrogate would likely be left with an office block without parking limiting its re-sale potential. Investing in a new building was seen as short-sighted.
The Civic Society were focused on keeping Crescent Gardens, either in HBC ownership or owned by local people as a consortium. This they felt would offer a level of protection. As a first step to this an attempt will be made to register the building as an “Asset of the Community.” That would give 6 months to raise capital to purchase the building. There is however an 8-week lead time in doing that and HBC decided if the application is valid, but do need to work to strict guidelines.
It was seen by the meeting that HBC had not chosen the cheapest option and that building a circular office block was a more expensive build option and wasteful of the land available. The meeting favoured the alternate option of refurbishing Crescent Gardens and staff located in Springfield House. Springfield house has had vacant office space for a number of years.
The HBC argument for having all staff in one location did not make sense to the group. It was noted that Leisure and Tourism staff have already been moved to the Hydro and the Parks department are on Claro road and that the existing buildings were already very close.
The Chamber of Trade said that it not possible to understand if there were long term savings with a new build, given the detail of information that has been made available.
It was not clear how the build would be funded. It was noted that there are some reserves, but borrowing by the Council would also be needed. There was concern that this would lead to an increase in Council Tax in future years.
It was noted by the group that there was a rush by HBC to sell Crescent Gardens, yet the a new build would take a year or more to complete.
The Civic Society believe that the Council are embarking on a risky strategy in a time of austerity and that there had been no consideration made to heritage.
On a number of occasions the meeting was distracted by discussion around what HBC was doing with the many gifts it had been given over the years. While they are of importance to the heritage of the town, it is separate issue to office accommodation.
The right to a judicial review was discussed, this would be a legal challenge to the process that has been undertaken by HBC.
The group believed that the Council are working unilaterally without proper consultation with the public and that there is too much happening behind closed doors. A consultation was undertaken by HBC, but the response to it was very poor. Given that, and that HBC staff were encouraged to respond to it, it was felt that the consultation results were not representative of the true feelings of the public.
The meeting concluded in calling on the Council to delay any final decisions, consider other options, and to make more information available to the public.