Heritage society condemns ‘secretive’ Council

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HERITAGE campaigners have united against Harrogate Borough Council’s £12.4m plans to convert its historic headquarters into a boutique hotel and move to the town’s former police station site.

The influential Harrogate Civic Society launched its opposition to the proposals after a meeting with council leader Don Mackenzie, raising concerns, echoed by opposition councillors, that much of the process has been undertaken in private.

The proposals to sell its buildings, including historic Crescent Gardens, and centralise operations at a single location on the site of the station on North Park Road, were voted through at a full council meeting in February.

But a report drawn up by council officers remains exempt from the public, due to the “commercially sensitive” nature of some of the information it contains.

All 14 members of the Tory-led council’s opposition Liberal Democrat group have already voted against the move, and raised concerns that proper process has not been followed as it was agreed by cabinet a day before it appeared before the local authority’s overview and scrutiny committee.

Liberal Democrat Councillor Reg Marsh, who was appointed to an independent scrutiny panel to oversee the move, has now told the Yorkshire Post it had only met once and had not been informed of developments as it had requested.

Now Henry Pankhurst, chairman of the Harrogate Civic Society, has registered the group’s objection to the plans.

“We are absolutely opposed to this, 116 per cent,” he said.

“We think Crescent Gardens is the right place for the council offices but we also fear a boutique hotel would damage the interior of the building.

“It is very bad that the public were not kept in the full picture in any way at all.

“The public were not given all the options and were never given the opportunity of a public exhibition in order to give their opinion,” he said.

After initially raising concerns, representatives of the civic society met with Coun Mackenzie and senior council officers last month, to discuss the plans.

“I asked for the meeting because that was the only way we were going to know anything about it,” Mr Pankhurst said.

“But it was not exactly fruitful and there was no scope for real discussion or negotiation – by that stage everything was already fait accompli.

“We now want to drum up more public support for keeping the council offices in Crescent Gardens – that is the rightful place for convenience and it is part of our history.”

The council’s relocation scheme is expected to cost £12.4m which will be funded by a combination of borrowing and the sale of the existing sites at Crescent Gardens, Knapping Mount, Scottsdale House, Springfield House and Victoria Park House.

About a dozen posts are due to be lost from the 500 staff moving into the new offices, but it is hoped the reduction will be achieved through natural turn-over of staff rather than through redundancies.

Local authority chiefs maintain the centralisation of services is fundamental to ensure the future of the authority amid cutbacks due to the Government’s austerity drive.

Coun Mackenzie yesterday defended the move – saying both the decision of the cabinet and of the overview and scrutiny committee was available to members before the vote at full council – at which all 28 members of the Conservative administration voted for the move.

“We put a lot of effort into protecting Harrogate’s heritage,” Coun Mackenzie said.

“It has been done as transparently and openly as possible.

“When you are dealing with the private sector and you are buying and selling property, there has to be a degree of confidentiality.

“I believe the taxpayers of Harrogate will have to trust their elected members who are determined to obtain value for money for the residents,” he said.

The new council building is also expected to be used as a base in the town centre for some police officers.

The council believes the cost of loans for the new premises will be financed from the savings it makes by moving and that the new premises will make the council more accessible.