Harrogate council agrees £1m for design work on troubled convention centre

Councillors have agreed to spend more than £1m on design and project work to improve the prospects of the troubled Harrogate Convention Centre, which is currently used as an NHS Nightingale hospital.

A final business case for the £47m renovation of the 40-year-old venue is to be drawn up after receiving the backing of Harrogate borough councillors at an extraordinary full council meeting.

Harrogate Borough Council members were told the centre may not survive without investment and is in “critical need” of an upgrade to win back its national appeal.

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The venue has seen its finances worsen during its use as a temporary hospital and even with the upgrades it is forecasting to lose £10million over the next 40 years.

However, centre director Paula Lorimer argued this is outweighed by the benefits that the venue brings by attracting around 157,000 visitors and contributing £35m to the economy each year.

She said the investments could put the centre back at the “top of the table” of conferences nationally.

“There is no reason why we can’t be there again”, she said. “But to do that we need to have a conference centre which is fit for purpose.

Harrogate Convention Centre is being used as a Nightingale Hospital. Pic: PA

“The council has invested a lot of money in trying to keep the convention centre going over the years. But now some of the assets are far too old, so we need to do something and we need to do something now.”

Ms Lorimer said she is confident the centre would be able to secure some government funding towards the £47m upgrade costs if the project could be made “shovel ready”.

In recent years the council has invested more than £4.3m in the centre which is the single largest consumer of electricity in the district. The venue has estimated its maintenance costs over the next 20 years could be £19m if the upgrades are not completed.

The plans received the backing of the opposition Liberal Democrat party whose leader Pat Marsh said the council must invest in the centre because it has a “significant impact on the prosperity of the district”.

She said: “The decision to do nothing and continue to throw money at this business would lead us nowhere. We could sell the business, but we tried that way back in the 1990s and it went nowhere. We have to bite the bullet. We have to go forward.”

Only one councillor spoke in objection to the proposals. Ripon Independent’s Coun Pauline McHardy said district residents outside Harrogate would be “short changed” and not see any benefits of the project.

Plans for the rebuild could involve three exhibition halls being demolished to make way for a new 5,000 sq m hall and a refurbished auditorium.

The council would need about £20m to construct the first phase of redevelopment, with another phase later.

Coun Graham Swift, deputy leader of the council, said the business case will”alleviate all costs doubts” of the project before councillors will next year be asked to progress it further.

Earlier this week, the future of Harrogate’s Nightingale Hospital was cast into further doubt after a contract for its use was extended by just two weeks to allow for talks to continue.

An NHS contract for its use was due to expire on 31 July but it was extended for another two weeks.

The council said it is continuing in talks with the NHS over when the convention centre can be handed back over to business.

Nightingale hospitals have been built at conference venues elsewhere in London, Birmingham and Manchester.

They have begun planning for events to partially return this autumn, while remaining on standby as hospitals.

Harrogate Convention Centre, however, says it can’t restart events or plan ahead while it’s in use as a Nightingale because of its size.

The council faces a £9m deficit as a result of the pandemic, most of which is lost income from the convention centre. The NHS is not paying any rent to the convention centre or the council.