Indies in Harrogate Pt.2: Blame the council

This is part 2 of a 5 part blog about the situation for independent businesses in Harrogate as we head into the summer of 2017.  If you’d like to head back to the first post click here.

I’m going to discuss 7 groups that are regularly mentioned in the discussion about who is failing indies in Harrogate, in this post I’ll talk about Harrogate Borough Council:

1.  Harrogate Borough Council

If you are a member of any of the local Facebook groups you’ll know that Harrogate Borough Council are quickly put in the crosshairs for not doing enough to protect the town from the march of chains, but is this fair and realistic?

In my previous life I served as an Officer in the Army and inevitably I think that has affected the way I feel about public service and public servants.  My natural inclination is to believe that they are doing their best in the face of a tough task.  They have an ever increasing remit as central government try to devolve decisions locally and at the same time cuts budgets so there are less resources to deal with the responsibilities.  So my cards are on the table.

“The Council are not doing enough to stop chains coming to town….”

I see people writing or hear people complaining about the council’s role in curbing the chains all the time.   My understanding is that it’s a free market and businesses large and small are entitled to enter negotiations with landlords and the council cannot do anything about who those businesses are.  If a venue was previously a restaurant and a chain wants to come in and take it over they can do so with no consultation with the council whatsoever.  That goes for large retailers taking up retail premises and anything else that doesn’t require licensing.

If you are trying to open a bar or a betting shop where licensing would be required then the council do get involved.  This doesn’t mean they can favour independents over chains, they would have to apply the rules equally to any applicant.

Where the council do become involved is when the use of the building changes i.e. a shop turns to a cafe.  The council do have the ability to examine these applications and reject them if they are not in line with the local planning guidance (assuming that guidance is in line with national guidance).  This leads me on to the most memorable recent case where the Council tried to reject a planning application from a chain.

The Carluccio’s Application: Apr – Nov 2013

If you’ve been around Harrogate even for just the last 5 years you may recall the last significant refusal for a change of use planning application (apart from the refusal to allow Pret a Manger to open in what is now the Holland and Barrett shop on the high street)  was for Carlucccio’s on Station Square.  The initial application was refused to protect retail on James Street in line with the Harrogate Town Plan.  This decision was met with outrage on social media and in the local press where even Editor of the Harrogate Advertiser Jean McQuarrie (who is a force for good in this town and a supporter of indies) said the council had got it wrong in her column.

Carluccio’s appealed and  held a public consultation which 230 residents attended and the majority gave their written support  – copies of this can be found on the second planning application online.  Planning was granted and everyone conveniently forgot that the council did try to refuse a national chain.

I would suggest the council got their fingers burnt coming up against the power of a national chain that was willing and able to whip up ‘anti-progress’ sentiment against the council.  Is it any wonder that Harrogate Borough Council are reluctant to get drawn into battles against far better resourced organisations who are likely prepared to take their case all the way to the Secretary of State at significant cost to the taxpayer.

The council are in a really difficult position.  Turn an application down and they get accused of holding Harrogate back, not allowing a ‘prestigious’ business to take over an empty unit.  Grant it and they are accused of letting chains run riot over independents in the town.

The Cinema Complex

The cinema complex passed through planning fairly easily, a slight concern about the number of restaurants but the general state of the building seemed to be balanced against that as there was concern that the site could turn into a white elephant given the poor trading history of Beales department store.

The application did cite ‘The Carluccio’s’ decision as part of the evidence to support their case, which shows how important individual decisions can be at a later date.

The developers suggested the building could be mixed retail and restaurant use but of course no retailers ever emerged to take a unit, although there is one beauty business based there.

There is no doubt in my own mind that the significant capacity introduced by the cinema has diluted the market in Harrogate.  On the face of it for residents and visitors it’s great because there will always be somewhere you can grab a bite to eat because our town simply isn’t busy enough to fill all the restaurants at the same time.  Of  course the situation isn’t sustainable and begins to right itself as the chains with such better cashflow and ability to endure quiet periods survive whilst indies close.

The Ivy Brasserie

I had a look at the planning application for The Ivy Brasserie which is due to open on Parliament Street this year with a further loss of A1 (Retail) space.

The application has been approved and there were over 100 residents and businesses that submitted comments in favour of the opening – more than I have ever seen for any other application.  A difficult one for the council to even consider turning down.

It could be argued that the application breaches the new Draft Local Plan which has tried to limit the change from A1 (Retail) to A3 (Cafe and Restaurant) in secondary shopping areas and specifically advises against developments that result in 3 uses other than retail alongside one another.  Unfortunately it’s another precedent established that could be used as justification for planning applications in the future.

Lets be clear this isn’t ‘The Ivy’ – Kate Moss won’t be papped stumbling out of their doors with Johnny Depp at 1am.  It’s ‘The Ivy Brasserie’ a concept that has been created using the name of the restaurant in London to then be rolled out across the UK.  One is opening in Leeds later this year or early 2018 and another in York.  In terms of the menu it’s going to be competing with Cote, Cau, Jamie’s, Gino D’Acampo and the rest.  It’ll also be in direct competition with Bettys and hey, it’ll be in competition with us at Baltzersen’s and Norse too.

They have an all day menu from breakfast/brunch all the way into the evening and plan for 130 seats indoor and a further 45 outdoors.  It’s a huge amount of additional capacity to add to the town, a well known brand and it’s going to further dilute the market especially during the first month or two when it opens and residents are trying it out.  Visitors will inevitably be drawn by the brand recognition.

Landlords Lateral Property Group  think it’s going to:

“provide a significant boost to the town’s reputation as a dining destination”

I would refute the suggestion that this chain bistro will enhance the dining out scene in Harrogate.  Once the outlets in Leeds and York open they are far easier to get to for most travellers so I’m not convinced it’ll bring any additional visitors to the town either.

A final point is that it’s a national chain.  The work on the building will likely be done by national companies, not local tradesmen.  The produce will likely be supplied by national suppliers.  Equipment will be sourced nationally and repaired on national contracts.  This kind of development doesn’t bring in as much money to the local economy as it could.

It will create jobs which is positive, although from a slightly selfish indie point of view that drives up competition for staff in an already challenging labour market.  I would also probably agree that not many people will miss the Edinburgh Woollen Mill and I have no doubt the finished space will be spectacular and an improvement on what is currently there.

If you’re excited that the Ivy is coming that’s great.  It’s going to affect the businesses that are already here and it may be fatal for some, but that’s the price that has to be paid.

The Ripon Decision

Whilst writing this blog post the council have announced a decision to approve a new £10 million development on the outskirts of Ripon with Marks and Spencer as the lead retailer.  I don’t live in Ripon so I am not read into the facts of that situation, although inevitably it’s going to pull trade from the town centre.

One thing that did stick out to me in the reporting by The Harrogate Advertiser was a quote by Coun Alan Skidmore:

“We don’t live in a protectionist society, if a developer brings 80 jobs to Ripon, it is a hugely important development for the city. If retailers are in competition, they need to up their game.”

Thanks for the insight Alan, I do agree to some extent but we don’t need you to point it out for us.  It doesn’t make existing businesses feel very valued or promote an ‘all in this together’ approach.

“The council are greedy and just want the business rates…..”

Since 1990 Business rates have been set at national levels and Harrogate Borough Council have no control over them at all.  When people say ‘the rates in Harrogate are so expensive’ it is true to an extent but that’s to do with the property values more than the council .

The way business rates are collected has been changing and currently councils collect all of the rates and retain 50% whilst the other 50% goes to central government.  The aim is to have councils retaining 100% of their rates by the end of this parliament, it’s a devolution of power that should deliver more flexibility locally.

Some councils have already been able to introduce incentives for businesses in certain areas through a rates reduction or by other measures but this kind of scheme will always be a balancing act as it’s likely to mean cuts in other areas of council provision.

Landlords of town centre properties are  liable for the rates 3 months after a tenant moves out so in theory there is no incentive to have empty shops let from a  business rates perspective although it would clearly be better for the general appeal of the town.

“Ok, they may not get the rates but introducing Sunday parking charges is an outrage, an obvious money spinner and discourages people from shopping in town”

Harrogate Borough Council don’t run on-street parking in Harrogate, that falls to North Yorkshire County Council (along with traffic control and road maintenance).  It was the County Council that introduced the parking charges and given that it’s not a policy applied to all areas of NYCCs jurisdiction the decision does feel unfair.  If you want to have a go at Harrogate Borough Council you need to talk off-street parking and the fact that in 2017  the Jubilee car park still doesn’t take cards.

It’s angered many residents and many in the business community but there are opposing views.  I can understand the introduction of charges, because we found that many of our customers couldn’t find a space because of the number of cars left parked up after Saturday night.  We’d much rather have those spaces being turned over 3 or 4 times per day, but there could have been other options.

So are we blaming the council?

Yes in some cases the council are approving plans submitted by chains that are negatively affecting businesses in our town/city centres and telling us to get a grip and start competing.

Sometimes they try to turn chains down and we, the residents, undermine them and play a role in having decisions overturned perhaps not understanding the consequences.

Other times we are so giddily excited about being blessed by the divine arrival of a famous London restaurant spin off we are fighting each other to support their application.

Whilst all of this is going on we’re moaning about becoming a clone town with too many chains.

Essentially we’re a pretty inconsistent bunch, and if nothing else our elected officials are reflecting that quite accurately in their decisions.

Until more of the money from rates comes to local government I would suggest that the council’s hands are tied on offering incentives to certain businesses and even when it is entirely their remit most councils are unlikely/unable to make sweeping local reforms that would reduce their rates take and give significant relief to businesses.

It’s not just the council, so who else has a part to play in the success or failure of Harrogate’s indie scene?  That’s the focus of: Indies in Harrogate Pt. 3: Who Else’s Fault is it?


3 Comments Add yours

  1. Richard says:

    Excellent well written set of blogs , it says something about the Indie sector that when you look on TripAdvisor ( as we all do ) none of the chains appear near the top .

    1. Paul says:

      Hi Richard,

      I think this is a good point, the challenge for many chains I suppose is that getting those excellent scores is a little tougher because their operations are generally leaner and a bit more formulaic. They find it more difficult to wow people. They also do a lot of volume so maintaining the highest levels of service is another issue. You only have to look at the reviews for some of the chains to realise that they see it’s difficult for them to win on this front so they focus their attention very successfully elsewhere in terms of marketing.

      It means that indies have an opportunity to stick around at the top of TripAdvisor and like it or not (many don’t!) it’s an important way to attract visitor business especially.



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