Should James St Be Pedestrianised Right Now If At All?

Messrs. D. Bowe and Councillor C .Les Civic Centre
NYCC, County Hall, Racecourse Ln, Northallerton, DL7 8AD

26th August, 2020

Dear Sirs,

The recent decision by Harrogate Borough Council to apply for a part-pedestrianisation of James Street is, in our view, rash and ill-considered, and we are particularly concerned that it has been made without any prior consultation with either the businesses that trade on James Street or the landlords that own its properties.

A principal reason cited by Councillor Don Mackenzie for the move is that “there are hospitality businesses in this section of James Street, which could benefit from the additional space, which the closure would provide.” James Street is almost entirely composed of retailers, with just one hospitality business currently trading there, so could the Councillor have been confusing James Street with Albert Street, which contains several hospitality businesses?

Other reasons given include the unverified claim that speeds along James Street have increased since the road was partially coned off to prevent parking, and social distancing. The word unverified is apt, since there is absolutely no supporting evidence supplied by the council for its claim.

For a council that is so quick to engage consultants, at great cost to the taxpayer, to investigate everything from further investment into the Convention Centre to ways in which Harrogate can be marketed to the wider world, it does seem surprising that Harrogate Borough Council would choose not to consult its own rate-paying businesses over the closure of Harrogate’s premier shopping street to traffic. Unfortunately, it is symptomatic of the leadership’s complete detachment from and lack of respect for Harrogate’s business community. Very few of Harrogate Borough Council’s leadership reside in Harrogate or have experience of owning or running businesses, and this is painfully exposed in their lack of connection to the issues facing the town.

Councillor Swift, in the Overview and Scrutiny Commission meeting of 3 August, stated that as a result of government support Harrogate’s retailers “do not have costs currently”. We would like to ask Councillor Swift for clarification of his comments, which are clearly nonsense. We would also ask him to explain his statement that “46% of non-food goods are being bought online”, as this appears to be a confusion of the market penetration rate with total volume of sales.

We agree that the threat from e-commerce on bricks and mortar retailers is real. However, while councillors including Swift and Mackenzie like to place internet business and bricks and mortar business in opposition to each other, they are in fact closely linked and most of Harrogate’s shops also trade successfully online, the physical shop remaining a key component in the retail mix. By using statistics that we believe exaggerate the true position, Councillor Swift is in danger of writing off Harrogate’s successful shops when they should instead be celebrated.

The council’s position of dismissing the real concerns of local retailers and failing to actively engage with them is also starkly at odds both with that of central government and two developments arising out of the pandemic:-

  1. Localism is likely to increase as a result of more people being encouraged to work from home and city-based office workers moving to rural areas. With the right support our retailers are in a strong position to benefit from this shift to smaller retail centres, such as Harrogate.
  2. The Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, has implemented the ‘Eat Out To Help Out’ scheme and other initiatives specifically to encourage the return of the retail and hospitality economy. Central government has made clear the importance of activity returning to town centres with proportionate social distancing measures.

With our local council rowing in the opposite direction from central government, Harrogate is not going to be in a position to capitalise on these welcome developments, and this will be to the long-term detriment of our town centre.

The performance of Harrogate is no longer as described in the Council’s Masterplan when adopted in May 2016. The town centre no longer “performs strongly as a shopping destination” and as a result of COVID-19, online shopping, previous locally generated problems, climate change and challenges faced by national brands, Harrogate no longer has “the strength and quality of its independent retail offer and its ongoing ability to attract premium comparison retailers”; which then differentiated it from Leeds and York. The world has dramatically changed and ploughing on with the now out-of-date Masterplan as if nothing has happened is suicidal.

We strongly urge Harrogate Borough and North Yorkshire County Councils to start listening to Harrogate’s businesses, and to actively consult with them before making changes that may negatively impact us all. Just ‘consulting’ those who echo pre-conceived ideas is unacceptable in the current crisis.

Yours sincerely,
The members of Independent Harrogate

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