Council divided over £12.4m HQ switch to old police station site

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A POLITICAL rift has split open in Harrogate over the council’s intended new £12.4m move to the town’s former police station site.

In a shock move during this week’s full council meeting over the strategy, all 14 members of the local authority’s Liberal Democrat group voted against the proposals to centralise its departments into a single location on the site of the station on North Park Road which has been deemed unfit for purpose by North Yorkshire Police.

The force is building a new base at Beckwith Knowle on the edge of Harrogate. But the proposed deal could see police also based in the council’s headquarters to provide a long-term presence in Harrogate’s town centre.

Despite the split, all 28 members of Harrogate Borough Council’s Conservative administration voted the plans through.

In a statement issued after Wednesday night’s meeting, Liberal Democrat group leader Coun Philip Broadbank said: “We are in difficult economic times.

“The council is having to increase its subsidy to keep the Royal Hall operating, the International Centre continues to lose money and because of new Government regulations we are having to borrow to in excess of £60 million to purchase our housing stock.

“While it is undeniable that there needs to be some action to improve the quality of our office stock which has been allowed to deteriorate over a number of years, we do not feel that now is the right time to embark on further massive spending.

“Next year could see huge cuts in front line services.

“We must not enter such a massive and irreversible financial undertaking hastily.”

The main criticisms focus on the cost, suitability of the new site and impact on town centre traffic levels from the new scheme.

Liberal Democrat councillor Amanda Russell said: “I am seriously concerned about the impact this move will have on the residential roads surrounding the proposed new offices.

“They will be unable to cope with the influx of new traffic.”

Council leader Don Mackenzie yesterday told the Yorkshire Post he was taken aback at the united uproar to the plans from the Liberal Democrats.

“I was surprised and disappointed that all of the Liberal Democrats voted against this,” he said.

“I feel their reasons for doing so were entirely misplaced.

“When interest rates are low and economic activity sluggish then that is a good time to start a development of this nature.

“I don’t know why the site was not good enough for North Yorkshire Police but their decision to go to Beckwith Knowle has given the council a unique opportunity to purchase a town centre site which is capable of supporting a single office for all of our departments.”

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

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 rather than 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.

The council has acquired, or inherited, offices on an ad-hoc basis since local government reorganisation in 1974, and it now needs to be streamlined.

During Wednesday night’s full council meeting, members gave unanimous backing to Harrogate Theatre’s bid to take over the running of the town’s Royal Hall from the Harrogate International Centre, where the latest financial forecasts have predicted a loss of nearly £1.6m over the next 12 months.

The deal to take over the Royal Hall – which comes at a cost of £200,000 to the taxpayer – will not be sustainable in its present form beyond 2013.