What will the new combined authority mean for Harrogate?
Last updated Feb 2, 2024
From left, James Farrar, Cllr Claire Douglas and Cllr Carl Les.

York and North Yorkshire Combined Authority had a launch event yesterday in the grand surroundings of York’s Guildhall.

The new public body will see four councillors from York and North Yorkshire work with a newly elected mayor to deliver schemes worth £18m a year related to transport, housing, net-zero and business.

The combined authority era will begin in earnest after mayoral elections on May 2.

But for all the aspirational talk from leaders at the launch about “historic milestones” and “flourishing together”, what will it actually mean for people living in Harrogate?

The Local Democracy Reporting Service spoke to Cllr Carl Les, Conservative leader of North Yorkshire Council and James Farrar, interim head of paid services for combined authority, to try and get a better sense of how the combined authority will work — and how the mayor could use their new powers to improve Harrogate.

Some key decisions will be made in Harrogate

A common criticism of North Yorkshire Council is the location of its headquarters in Northallerton with it frequently being described by Harrogate residents as remote and out-of-the-way.

The combined authority will have two main offices — in York and at County Hall in Northallerton.

Cllr Les disputed the argument that this means even more decisions affecting Harrogate will not be made locally and he insisted the town will have a voice.

As the mayoral role will also include the brief of the current Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner Zoe Metcalfe, her office and staff at Harrogate Police Station on Beckwith Head Road will come under the control of the mayor.

Although the crime and fire duties will be led by a deputy mayor who will be appointed after the election.

Cllr Les said:

“Devolution is the holy grail of local government. It’s about moving decision-making away from Whitehall to County Hall and to York. I’ve been around local government for nigh-on 30 years and I’ve never met a councillor who doesn’t believe we can’t make better decisions locally.”

The mayor could help fund the Harrogate Convention Centre redevelopment.

North Yorkshire Council has a £49m problem with what to do with the ageing Harrogate Convention Centre.

It’s seen seen two funding bids rejected by government to help pay for a planned redevelopment that it inherited from the defunct Harrogate Borough Council.

It was even recently suggested by council chief executive Richard Flinton that the council-run facility could be sold to the private sector.

However, Mr Farrar said the convention centre redevelopment project could win funding from the mayor providing it delivers “good bang for the buck”.

Cllr Les was more enthusiastic about the idea and said “absolutely” when asked if the mayor could help pay for it.

He added:

“That’s a discussion we’d want to have with the mayor, whoever he or she is.”

The launch event today.

The mayor could reverse cuts to Harrogate’s fire service

Conservative fire and crime commissioner Zoe Metcalfe has faced strong criticism from fire unions and the public over her decision to reduce the number of fire engines available in Harrogate overnight to one.

She also recently announced that from April, four firefighters based in the town will lose their jobs, saving £210,000.

Last month, Ms Metcalfe said she was going to write to local government secretary Michael Gove to plead with him for an increase in funding available to the fire service through council tax.

Cllr Les admitted government hasn’t always listened to the requests of crime commissioners but said that could change with a more high-profile mayor who may be able to negotiate more money for North Yorkshire’s cash-strapped fire service.

Cllr Les said:

“They could [reverse the cuts].  But if the mayor wants to reverse the savings, they have to find the money.”

Mr Farrar added that the budget of the fire service will be “entirely down to the mayor”

More active travel schemes for Harrogate?

Harrogate’s £11.2m Station Gateway has turned into one giant headache for North Yorkshire Council.

The active travel scheme has been drastically scaled-back following opposition from local businesses and the finished version could end up satisfying nobody.

One of the mayor’s responsibilities is to bring forward a strategic transport strategy for the region and Mr Farrar said this could include suggesting new schemes to promote cycling and walking in Harrogate.

He added:

“We’ll be looking at how people move around in Harrogate in an effective way.”

But how will the combined authority be able to succeed where the council has arguably failed?

Cllr Les said:

“The station gateway is a classic example of putting forward a scheme and finding two distinct lobbies in Harrogate where there are well-educated people who know how to put a coherent argument forward.

“Its very clear a lot of people wanted a scheme that’s much more pedestrian and cycle-friendly, other people wanted it to be more business-friendly. We’ve tried to strike a balance, whether we’ve got it right, only time will tell.”

One of the first jobs in the mayor’s in-tray could be repairing the fractured relationship between Harrogate businesses, cycling community and the public sector following the station gateway debacle.

But if he or she decides to encourage more active travel in Harrogate, they could also run into the same problems and divisiveness faced by North Yorkshire Council.

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