The new top local politician in the Harrogate district


Last updated Aug 6, 2022
Michael Harrison and County Hall

The local political landscape is being utterly transformed.

A new unitary authority is coming; eight existing councils, including Harrogate Borough Council and North Yorkshire County Council, are going.

A devolution deal this week paved the way for a countywide mayor and the creation of a combined authority overseeing £540 million.

It’s not just the institutions changing. So too are the politicians.

Richard Cooper and Graham Swift, the long-serving Conservative leader and deputy leader of Harrogate Borough Council, will step down when it is abolished next year.

Don Mackenzie, the Conservative councillor previously in charge of transport at North Yorkshire County Council, did not seek re-election in the local elections on May 5.

Since then a new man has emerged as the most senior local politician and although he too is a Conservative he is a somewhat different beast.

As executive member for health and adult services at North Yorkshire County Council, Michael Harrison is the only person from the Harrogate district sitting on what is effectively the 10-person cabinet making key decisions on spending in the county.

Cllr Harrison (far right), sitting on the county council’s cabinet.

Cllr Harrison’s portfolio is responsible for more than half of the county council’s £380 million annual budget. But most people aren’t interested in social care until they need it, so his role attracts far less attention than the transport brief Keane Duncan inherited from Don Mackenzie, even though the sums are higher.

Cllr Harrison, who lives at Killinghall Moor, is far from unhappy about his low profile. He says:

“I enjoy contributing in an executive capacity. Adult social care is a complex area — you are dealing with some of the most vulnerable people in society.

“I feel I have a lot to offer there. It’s completely different to being the local face of the council.”

From Killinghall to Northallerton

Born in Sunderland, and with the accent to prove it, Cllr Harrison, 52, moved to the Harrogate district in the mid-1990s with his job at Lloyds Banking Group. He still works for the bank in risk management.

He joined Killinghall Parish Council in 2002, was elected to Harrogate Borough Council in 2004 and nine years later was also voted on to North Yorkshire County Council.

While some of his Conservative colleagues fell by the wayside at May’s local election, he received a commanding 54% share of the vote to ensure he will represent Killinghall, Hampsthwaite and Saltergate on the county council and its successor, the new North Yorkshire Council, until at least 2027.

Many people think councillors are full time professionals, but most combine politics with full-time jobs. Each county councillor receives a basic allowance of £10,316. Executive members, like Cllr Harrison, also receive special responsibility allowances of £15,939.

North Yorkshire County Council's offices in Northallerton.

County Hall in Northallerton, home of North Yorkshire County Council.

Cllr Harrison often takes his laptop to County Hall in Northallerton to work on his day job between meetings. Juggling the two isn’t easy, but he says:

“I think it’s important that councillors are drawn from society itself. It wouldn’t be healthy if only retired people could do it. But it is difficult to do it alongside a full-time job. You need the support of your family and employer.”

Pragmatism over politics

Although he’s a lifelong Conservative, Cllr Harrison does not come across as overtly political. He doesn’t name any political heroes and claims not to be ambitious.

“I’ve never had any particular political ambitions. I get a lot out of delivering quietly behind the scenes. I adopt a pragmatic approach to problems.”

He is backing Rishi Sunak in the leadership contest, saying he wants someone who can “reintroduce honesty and integrity into central government”.

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County Hall in Northallerton operates like Whitehall in London. The politically elected executive members set the direction of travel and professional civil servants carry out the day-to-day work.

Cllr Harrison seems more comfortable talking about the nuts and bolts of North Yorkshire politics rather than banging the drum for the Tories.

He says the new unitary authority will deliver services more efficiently than the current two-tier system by removing bureaucracy and will also end confusion over which council does what. But he admits there are challenges:

“Can the new council demonstrate it understands local needs? Tensions will be there within the district. The key is to understand priorities in each area.”

He says some services, such as gritting and waste disposal, are best handled centrally in Northallerton, but other services, such as leisure and tourism, require a more local focus.

Unusually for a leading Conservative, he’s a member of the banking union Accord and talks warmly about it. He says:

“Unions have a key role to play in representing employees.”

He also has rheumatoid arthritis, which he says is under control. Typically, he doesn’t make a fuss about it and is soon talking about social care again. He seems happy with it this way:

“Prior to getting into local government I said to people ‘I’m not into politics’. I’m more interested in delivering services for residents and hopefully being a common sense voice around the table.”


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