The newly-formed Friends of Harrogate Town Centre may be “proud of the town they live in” but, like many others, that does not mean they are not worried about its future.
Their announcement this week that they intend to launch the first-ever Town Centre Audit with the public deciding what improvements need to be made is only the tip of the iceberg.
As the strong reaction to the Harrogate Advertiser’s Facebook Group ‘The State of Harrogate’ shows, everyone in the town seems to have an opinion on what should be done.
Led by Harrogate in Bloom, Harrogate District Improvement Trust and Harrogate Borough Council, Friends of Harrogate Town Centre has hit the ground running.
Last week 16 volunteers gave the Montpellier and War Memorial area a buff up and scrub down prior to the Britain in Bloom judges visiting the town.
The State of Harrogate: What Harrogate Borough Council
Organiser and Harrogate Borough Council leader Richard Cooper summed up the approach.
“I travel all over the north and I can put my hand on my heart and say Harrogate is better than anywhere else I see,” he said. “I am so proud of the town where I live. But there are things that could be improved.
“Let’s get a big team together and do this audit to provide the shoppers-eye view of our streets.”
The Friends of Harrogate Town Centre are currently looking for volunteers to undertake the town centre audit during September, in particular, people with a keen eye coupled with a positive approach to give a couple of hours to help audit individual streets.
But they are just one of several groups now working separately to revive Harrogate town centre in an era of decline for the retail sector.
To the list must also be added Harrogate BID (Business Improvement District), Independent Harrogate, North Yorkshire County Council and Harrogate Borough Council.
With so many responsibilities for managing the town streets shared and so many ideas now threatening to overlap, calls are also growing to coordinate efforts better.
The State of Harrogate: What the Lib Dems say
The risk of mixed messages has led the leader of the opposition on Harrogate Borough Council, Lib Dem leader Coun Pat Marsh, to call for the whole community to come together in a non-political way for the sake of the town centre.
In a letter this week to the Harrogate Advertiser, the councillor for the Hookstone ward, says: “I have noted the concerns of many people, including the newly organised Independent Harrogate Group, they all have grave concerns about our town centre and its vitality and viability.
“This is something my group on the council raised at the elections in May 2018.
“I would ask all concerned to consider the development of a Town Team which could be a proactive organisation that includes businesses, landowners, landlords and residents working collaboratively with the council to improve our town centre, focusing on building relationships and practical actions.”
When it comes to the Friends of Harrogate Town Centre’s audit, the aim is to conduct an assessment including the state of street furniture such as telephone boxes, green cable boxes, benches, bollards, postboxes, street lamps and flower beds.
It will also look at the cleanliness of the streets, shop exteriors, litter hotspots and the state of the towns bins.
If the mood of the town can be judged accurately by readers’ posts at the Harrogate Advertiser’s Facebook Group ‘The State of Harrogate’, making cosmetic improvements may only provide part of the solution to the town’s woes.
The State of Harrogate: What a shop owner says
The owner of Harrogate cafe Truffles on Station Parade thinks that the key issue is the level of costs facing traders.
Diane Matthews said: “I am a business owner paying high rates. We have had nothing from BID as we are in lower Station Parade and the council and BID have no interest in us
“I think rents should be capped and rates set by profits.”
It’s a problem the leaders of Harrogate BID, which is funded by a new levy imposed on town centre traders, are concerned with.
In fact, John Fox, Chair of Harrogate BID, says he has already had discussions with a Government Minister regarding the high Business Rates which many businesses are struggling with.
Despite the empty retail units, new shops are still opening in Harrogate.
The space on James Street vacated by Gap is shortly to see a Castle Fine Art gallery opening. Tonight, Thursday, will see award-winning Love Brownies launched on Montpellier Parade.
Co-organiser of Friends of Harrogate Town Centre, Lynne Mee is optimistic over Harrogate town centre.
She said: “This isn’t about pointing a finger. This is about saying that we can be even better, attracting more visitors to shop here which helps keep our brilliant shops open for the local people to enjoy.”
The State of Harrogate: What readers say
Harrogate Advertiser readers have had their say on the town’s issues by joining the debate on our new Facebook Group
Mark Atch wrote: “Harrogate is going “downhill” but actually at a lesser rate of speed than the majority of the UK. All town centres are feeling the desperation of change. Look at Otley.
It’s a ghost town. National political policies (austerity) & the switch to online shopping have affected all towns & cities. If the Council were able to lower rates & rents on shop units to entice a more varied & interesting mix; Harrogate would survive & probably prosper.”
Stuart Preston added: “Having lived in a number of towns and cities, Harrogate is by far safer and cleaner than other places but that said there has been a increase in anti-social behaviour in the town centre, it’s been on the rise for 2 maybe 3 years and if it had been clamped down at the start it would have been much easier than trying to stop it at this point, really needs a greater police presence in the town centre.”
Irene Zdziebko wrote: “We’re definitely seeing an increase in anti-social behaviour, however the town looks tatty with all the empty shop units. Be like Leeds - convert them to pop-up shops. Thank goodness for the Stray and Valley Gardens.
Freeman Photographics commented on the need for action: “Just because we are not as bad as other places doesn’t mean we can be complacent. I have been saying rates and rents should be lowered for years but it seems to be falling on deaf ears.
"The greedy people who are prospering will continue to prosper - god knows where they are going to live though at this rate - there is barely anywhere decent left in the UK.”
The State of Harrogate: Have Your Say
Write to: The State of Harrogate, Harrogate Advertiser, 55 Grove Road, Harrogate. HG15EP.
Facebook: Go to our Facebook page and join the debate on our Facebook Group ‘The State of Harrogate’: https://www.facebook.com/groups/351172958884308/