A bitter row has broken out over controversial plans to sell Harrogate Borough Council’s landmark Crescent Gardens base and start afresh with a new building costing up to £9m.
The plans, first approved last summer, are the subject of severe criticism from Liberal Democrat members who have now set up a petition, branding the move “reckless” and a “phenomenal waste of public money”.
But this week, as council cabinet members prepare to sign the dotted line to start appointing architects and design teams, senior councillors say they must think long term.
“The current state of some of the Harrogate Borough Council office buildings makes them unfit for purpose,” said council leader Anthony Alton. “We have to make a major investment.
“The building of new, purpose-built, energy-efficient accommodation will also maximise additional savings and provide greater flexibility for the coming decades.”
The plans, to look at building a new council headquarters at Knapping Mount in the town, were first considered and approved by full council last July.
Councillors had been considering options for reducing its office accommodation - currently split over five sites - to cut costs.
And, said council leaders, while it was a difficult decision to make, the authority must be more business-like.
“This is a bold decision and probably the biggest the council has taken since 1974,” said Coun Alton as plans were approved in July. “We are in a continuing economic downturn which means that we have to make every penny count. As the council modernises and embraces new technology the time is right to take the opportunity to be more efficient with our resources and to be much more business-like in our approach.”
Costs are too high, he said this week, with the council’s workforce currently spread out over five sites at Crescent Gardens, Springfield House, Scottsdale House, Knapping Mount and Victoria Park House.
And while no final decision will be made until full costs have been considered, say council leaders, a move will save money and benefit the wider economy.
But Liberal Democrat councillors in the Harrogate district, speaking out this week against the plans, say they are more concerned than ever.
Any decision taken ahead of the next general election would be “reckless” in such uncertain political times, they say, when there is a chance the council will move to unitary authority.
They are calling instead for the council to upgrade its existing facilities at Crescent Gardens and have criticised a sum of £885,000 which has been set aside to get plans to the design and planning stage.
“If the Conservatives do not go ahead with their plan, this approximate £885,000 would become abortive costs,” they said. “This would a phenomenal waste of public funding.”
Coun Helen Flynn, shadow member for finance and resources and Parliamentary Political Candidate (PPC) for the next general election, said: “There are so many reasons why we oppose the scheme - this is simply not just a case of ‘tit for tat’ local politics.
“The unnecessary waste of local taxpayers’ money at a time when we know grants from Government are continuing to fall year on year and we are seemingly hamstrung from raising more locally from council tax, for example, judging by recent events.
“We would rather spend such capital money as is available now on much needed upgrades to local infrastructure.”
The council, over the course of recent months, had invited applications from contractors and designers and interviews were carried out last week.
Cabinet members were set to meet last night (Wednesday) to approve the appointment of a design team, who will draw up plans for the proposed new office.
Once the plans are revealed, in early summer, a full public consultation will be carried out to gauge public opinion.
How the politicians disagree
The conservative view
Conservative leader Anthony Alton said: “It is not the Conservative group’s plan, it is the councils. While a lower capital cost option may initially seem preferable, this would not bring the long term benefits that we want to achieve. Just like any business, reducing our overheads for the long term future has to be the logical decision. Talk of Harrogate Borough Council’s demise and a move to unitary status has been talked about for many years and will undoubtedly continue to be a subject of discussion for many more. We cannot let this subject affect important decisions which will ultimately benefit the community.”
The Lib Dem view
The Liberal Democrat leader Coun Philip Broadbank is calling for the use of land at Knapping Mount to be turned over to affordable housing rather than as a site for “shiny new offices”.
A Liberal Democrat petition has been set up at www.helenflynn.org.uk. “We are crying out for more affordable homes across the district,” he said. “Knapping Mount would make a perfect infill site for a good number of affordable homes which would not put too much strain on local infrastructure.”