HBC chief executive interview: The vision for Harrogate is very clear


Last updated Mar 9, 2021
Harrogate Borough Council chief executive Wallace Sampson OBE

On Friday the Stray Ferret interviewed Harrogate Borough Council chief executive Wallace Sampson OBE on a range of subjects including the covid pandemic, housing, the cost of HBC’s new offices and the future of Harrogate town centre.

It is the first time a senior figure at HBC has agreed to an interview with the Stray Ferret- all previous requests have been declined.  Over the next four days we will publish sections of the interview.

Today focuses on Harrogate town centre and whether the council’s proposed £50m investment into the Harrogate Convention Centre could be throwing good money after bad.

The vision for Harrogate town centre

Mr Sampson, what is your vision for the future of Harrogate town centre?

We need to look at what’s being happening generally with town centres around the country and I don’t think Harrogate is any different or immune to them. If you look at trends over the last few years, everybody would agree the impact of internet shopping is having a fundamental impact on retail and people’s shopping trends. It’s meaning fewer people are coming into our town centres.

If you look at the last 12 months, covid has shown that people want their town centres to be clean, successful, safe and accessible. They also want to see more use of public space and to do that in a very safe and responsible way.

Without a shadow of a doubt, there’s a need to look at how we can reshape our town centres to make them welcoming and where people can meet, visit and spend time. We need to use our open and public spaces in a much more accessible way than we have done before.

Some people have been critical of HBC’s vision and they see a different Harrogate from the one they once knew. They also might be critical of your leadership and role in putting this vision forward. Have you been clear enough and is it getting through to people?

I think the council has been very clear with its vision for the town centre. We’ve had a town centre masterplan that’s been in place for many years now. We’ve been through our economic recovery framework and are looking at ways we can support the town centre and infrastructure requirements.

But there will be significant jobs in retail that will be lost over the next few years. Without being complacent, there are still signs that the Harrogate district’s economy is reasonably resilient.

I did a comparison across the district looking at retail vacancy rates today compared with as far back as 2013. Across the district, our average retail vacancy rates are currently 7.3%. In 2013 it was 8.3%.

If you suggest retail in Harrogate is better than in 2013, why is there a perception that the town centre is declining?

There are fundamental structural changes that are taking place in retail behaviour and Harrogate isn’t immune to that. There’s also the point about high rents affecting the ability of businesses to retain a presence on the high street. That’s affecting small businesses and big strong brands.

The fact that big brands such as Debenhams and Topshop are closing isn’t a sign of a lack of confidence in Harrogate, it’s a sign that big businesses are going through a period of change and how to respond to issues such as internet shopping and their own costs, particular premises-related costs around rent and rates.

Tackling vacant space is something that should be market-led, but we can try and support it. That’s why we’re doing things like the Transforming Cities project that’s going out to consultation and the redevelopment of the Harrogate Convention Centre.

Those things are really, really important to supporting the vibrancy and resilience of our town centres. I say town centres plurally because quite often the conversation is about Harrogate but it’s important we talk about the district as a whole.

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The future of Harrogate Convention Centre

What makes you convinced that spending £50m on the Harrogate Convention Centre will revitalise Harrogate? The Stray Ferret reported the HCC has been losing money consistently over the last 10 years. Is this investment throwing good money after bad?

It’s important to understand how important the convention centre is to the economy of the town. We’ve obviously been affected by covid over the last 12 months but in a normal year the conventions centre attracts about 150,000 visitors a year and its economic impact is significant. We’re talking £30-£40m it brings to the economy a year.

If we understand and accept that the HCC is of fundamental importance to the economy of the town and district, do we do nothing or do we just do the minimum in terms of patching up what is very ageing infrastructure?

If we do the minimum, what does that mean for the ability to attract events to the convention centre? Is there a risk that this leads to a very slow decline? That is the question that ultimately councillors will have to consider.

We need to work up what a redeveloped HCC will look like. We’re just starting that work to get the designs up so we have very clear designs and feasibility. We’ll take a full economic impact report to understand the benefits if we were to redevelop the HCC.

We’ll bring it all back to councillors who can eventually make a decision. In short, do we do nothing or see a decline in infrastructure, or do we invest and show confidence in an ability to win business so that has a knock-on impact to all the businesses in the district.

But the world has changed and conferences might look completely different following covid. Is there a risk the council could spend a significant sum redeveloping the HCC which could turn out to be a huge mistake? 

Councillors make the final decision and that will probably be in about 12 months’ time. They’ll need to take into account assumptions about future opportunities for the business. We will need to reshape our targets to reflect those opportunities.

We also need to look at conferences as well as public events and corporate events.

We’re looking at ensuring how we can retain our exhibitions and ensuring things like entertainment and trade events are much more on a weekend rather than on a weekday. The conferences on weekdays really drive the strong economic impact.

Covid is driving changes of behaviour and whether people in the future will attend trade shows exhibitions. We’ll use all that over the next 12 months to feed into the business plan. That will ultimately drive the decision.

Tomorrow Mr Sampson responds to questions about the number of new homes being built in the district and the Local Development Plan. 


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