Strayside Sunday: Harrogate Convention Centre should not be in the hands of politicians


Last updated Aug 4, 2020
Strayside Sunday Paul Baverstock

Strayside Sunday is our weekly political opinion column. It is written by Paul Baverstock, former Director of Communications for the Conservative Party. 

Harrogate Borough Council has been up to its usual incompetent, vainglorious tricks this week and looks set, at the next full council meeting, to greenlight a staggering £1m – yes that is a cool £1m – consultancy project to design and plan a £46m (gasp) renovation of the loss-making lemon that is Harrogate Convention Centre.

In its 2014 town plan, the council made much of the fact that the activities of HCC contributed £57m to the town’s wider economy each year.  Now, to support its case for new investment in the centre, the council tells us that the convention centre contributes £35m to our local economy.  The explanation – a different way of compiling the figures. The lower figure produced with methodology set by an external body, Visit Britain. What a whopping discrepancy from figures the council had previously been in control of compiling. It doesn’t inspire confidence in its ability to now get the maths right with the eye-watering sums it  proposes spending.

So, having presided for years over the centre’s demise as a desirable destination conference venue, the council now seems set to absolve itself of the guilt of its previous underinvestment and mismanagement with profligate and horribly misguided public spending.  The question for Councillor Cooper is why, when you have so clearly been asleep at the wheel, should we trust you to spend a penny more, let alone the millions you plan?

Instead, the centre should be sold to specialist private enterprise, as large conference venues in Manchester and Birmingham have been, to great financial effect.  This would serve to secure the undoubted wider economic benefits of a successful conference centre for the town, away from political interference and leave the council free to focus on serving residents better.

Such a sale would yield significant and sorely needed investment capital for a truly progressive and innovative council to reimagine Harrogate town centre, or to promote independent local business, or to deliver much and never more needed services.  However, as former Harrogate Liberal Democrat MP Phil Willis said in these pages this week, the councillors involved are “amateurs”.  They should not be trusted to run any business of scale with public funds. Harrogate Council is simply unable to articulate what it is for and lurches from one expensive vanity project announcement to the next. Crescent Gardens, Knapping Mount, now this. It catches the eye, but for none of the right reasons. The sooner Harrogate council is folded into a single, devolved North Yorkshire Unitary Authority, the better. It’s fair to say that Harrogate council’s leadership don’t welcome the prospect, choosing Yorkshire Day, August 1, to announce the launch of an alternative devolution bid campaign.  And I’ll return to this subject in detail next week.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps dropped another clanger this week; heading off to a family holiday in Spain just hours before the air bridge back to the UK was closed – by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps – thereby condemning himself and his family to a 14-day quarantine on return to the United Kingdom.  Shapps arrived in Spain on Saturday and, at a virtual meeting with departmental and devolved colleagues the same day, was presented with new covid-19 infection figures that suggested a Spanish second wave.  Closing the bridge, he promptly boarded a return flight home to begin a fortnight of self-isolation.  Left in situ on their own in Spain, I suspect Mrs Shapps and their three children are not best pleased that Dad has made a bit of a prat of himself again.

The tragi-comic quality of episodes like this have been described as part of the continued “Graylingisation” of British Politics; so named by journalist Gavin Esler, in honour of poor old Chris “Failing” Grayling, who must surely go down as one of the most spectacularly incompetent British Cabinet Ministers in living memory.  The hapless MP for Epsom and Ewell has most recently been in the news for failing to secure the Chairmanship of the Parliamentary Intelligence Select Committee, despite the fact, or more likely because of it, that he was Boris Johnson’s preferred candidate.  So sure was he that he would emerge victorious, Grayling missed the manoeuvres of Julian Lewis MP (who is highly respected in parliament for his intelligence, his Intelligence expertise and his principle).  By the time Grayling realised he was being gazumped, it was too late and Mr Lewis won the Chairmanship of the committee at a canter.  In a fit of petulant and retaliatory pique, BoJo stripped Mr Lewis of the Conservative whip, at once earning the ire of parliament and reminding us all that what seems to matter in contemporary politics – nationally and locally – is not competence and probity, but patronage and blind fealty.

Finally, I’d like to recognise that, in respect of his vote, mentioned in my last column,  for the “continuity” Trade Bill and against several amendments to the bill seeking protections for the NHS from foreign trade, Ripon MP Julian Smith made a public statement this week.  Mr. Smith would still have us take as an item of faith the government’s claim that it will not sell out the NHS, but none the less I very much respect his willingness to spell out his position transparently.  It builds trust and understanding between people and their elected representatives, especially if mediated, on the record, through the fourth estate.  Trust has never been needed more.  Andrew Jones MP, why haven’t we heard from you?

That’s my Strayside Sunday.


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