Harrogate MP's plea to Duchy of Lancaster over Stray as wrangle over bars use of grass intensifies
Harrogate's MP has called for more flexibility from the Duchy of Lancaster as the row over the temporary use of Stray land by bars and cafes deepens.
After meeting the owners of the Empress on the Stray pub and the Blues Bar earlier this month outside the Empress, Andrew Jones MP wrote to the Chief Executive of the Duchy of Lancaster and asked him to confirm that the Duchy would not take legal action against the council or businesses the council awarded licences to for the purpose of utilising small areas of the Stray for a short amount of time during stage two of the Government's roadmap out of lockdown.
But the reply from the Duchy of Lancaster, the body that runs the 45,550 acres of land holdings owned by the Queen across England and Wales, which includes the Stray, has, in effect, moved the debate no further forward.
Not only local businesses, not only the town's MP but also Harrogate Borough Council are all on record as supporting the idea to make it easier for bars, cafes and restaurants to use small parts of the Stray for outdoors eating and drinking until lockdown rules ease further on May 17, if the Government's roadmap out of lockdown keeps to schedule.
As the landowners by law, the Duchy of Lancaster is guided by the Stray Act which seeks to protect Harrogate's precious 200 acres of parkland.
But the reply from the Duchy of Lancaster's Chief Executive Officer, who administers the estate, has alarmed Harrogate and Knaresborough MP Andrew Jones who has now written a second letter asking for more flexibility on the issue.
The Duchy's request that the matter should be settled on the ground not on a short-lived ad hoc basis by Harrogate Borough Council but, instead, by the law with full submissions from the council is, he says, impractical and would take so long as to be superceded by the next stage of the Government's road map.
Mr Jones said he was also concerned it includes a possible legal threat against Harrogate Borough Council from bars who currently had not been granted permission to use the Stray.
In his latest letter to the Duchy, Andrew Jones MP wrote: "The implication you make that you have been contacted by those opposed to such a move who are ready to take legal action if the council does not get a positive legal opinion is a further unhelpful contribution.
"What I was asking the Duchy of Lancaster and Harrogate Borough Council to do was to work together for the broader public good urgently to assist a small number of businesses adjacent to the Stray to utilise a small area of land.
"Harrogate Borough Council has told me that it is willing to manage the licences to do this and to regulate the activity. I was asking for you to show equal flexibility.
"By stating that the council must abide by the Stray Act for these few weeks in respect of a few square feet of land and advised then to get legal counsel to test any proposals to do otherwise you must have known that you had built processes and delays into any possible licensing process which take a possible outcome beyond the indoor hospitality re-opening on May 17.
"I live near the Stray and I am determined it will be protected fully for future generations.
"But in the crisis we have seen with businesses struggling it seemed to me that the interested parties working together to enable a small amount of Stray land to be used for businesses was appropriate.
"The fact that a positive outcome became impossible because processes came before the broader public good is deeply regrettable. "
But the Stray Defence Association, which has striven to defend the parkland at all times since being founded in 1933, is on the record as opposing its use for commercial purposes, except for those, usually larger, events expressly allowed within the rules of the Stray Act, such as the Harrogate Food & Drink Festival set to take place on the West Park Stray this June.
Earlier this week, when asked to comment on the Stray and the issuing of temporary trading licences, a spokesperson for the Duchy of Lancaster effectively told the Harrogate Advertiser the ball was in Harrogate council's court.
The Duchy of Lancaster said: "Harrogate Borough Council is responsible for the management of the Stray in accordance with the Stray Act. The Duchy has no legal grounds to object to management proposals permitted by the Act.
"While the Duchy is keen to support economic recovery whenever it can, the Stray is a public amenity space which exists for the benefit of all the people of Harrogate.
"It is not the role of the Duchy to act as arbitrator in what should be a local discussion among the affected stakeholders.
"Some of those who oppose the current proposals have expressed concern that temporary licences for these purposes are not permitted by the Act.
"We, therefore, suggested to the Council that they might seek advice regarding compliance before finalising their proposals.
"As we understand it, the proposals were discussed by Harrogate Borough Council at its cabinet meeting on March 31, 2021 and the decision taken not to proceed."
While the wrangling grows more complex, when the sun shines, outdoor revellers continue to enjoy deck chairs in the great outdoors on the grass near the Empress on the Stray pub without involvement from the authorities.
Blessed by mainly bright weather since the Covid rules were relaxed on April 12, Harrogate bars, cafes and restaurants have reported enjoying the strongest levels of footfall since the Christmas run-up last year or, even, since pre-Covid times.
But there is still some discontent over the difficulties and, sometimes, impossibility of some traders in Harrogate’s hospitality sector to operate outdoors only for the moment, including not just the Stray but pavement licences, too.
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