Five things we learnt about Harrogate's future during Ask the Cabinet

Harrogate town centre
Harrogate town centre
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The town centre masterplan, parking charges and an influx of chain restaurants all featured in questions from residents at the inaugural Ask the Cabinet event .

More than 100 members of the public attended as the senior councillors were grilled on a variety of issues including homelessness, planning and house building.

Residents at Ask the Cabinet

Residents at Ask the Cabinet

The event was chaired by council leader Coun Richard Cooper and also included cabinet members Michael Harrison, Rebecca Burnett, Graham Swift, Mike Chambers and Stan Lumley, as well as the council’s Chief Executive, Wallace Sampson.

Issues of council accountability, progress of the local plan, green waste charges and the implementation of infrastructure to cope with new housing were also raised.

But here's the five main things we learnt from the night.

Rail services are set to improve but electrification still in doubt

One of the early questions focused on the rail provision in Harrogate with a resident questioning what was being done to improve the services.

Coun Burnett said that she recognised the service was poor but stressed that it was due for a number of upgrades under the new franchises.

She informed residents that rolling stock would be improved under the new Northern franchise while there would be an increase in trains to London under the East Coast franchise.

However, Coun Burnett was less optimistic about the chances of the track being electrified in the near future, despite the bid being officially recognised by government.

She said: "Our campaign for electrification has been recognised by government as being a good scheme which will deliver benefits for the region. However, it's not got committed funding or d date yet.

"It is quite a long way into the future but I'm convinced that the government and our MP Andrew Jones has it as a priority. But, it's not as soon as we'd hoped."

Sunday parking charges supported by council

Despite it being a county council initiative, Coun Burnett was also asked why the Sunday parking charges plan was continuing despite 93.7 per cent of residents opposing it.

Coun Burnett explained that, despite the overwhelming public and business objections to the plans, the council believes there is now "clear data" which supports introducing the charges.

Coun Burnett said: “I am keen that any proposal we or North Yorkshire makes is backed up by evidence. At first, the proposals were suggesting solutions to problems they had not proved existed.

“North Yorkshire has worked hard to get the evidence. Even if the charges are not supported by the people who signed the petitions they will understand why they’re being brought forward.

"The county council are now proposing Sunday charges from 10am to 6pm with no evening charges proposed.

"That shows that a reaction by councillors like ourselves has affected a change and I'd say that's democracy in action."

Unitary authority could be just a pipe dream

With North Yorkshire’s active role in policies a central theme of the evening, one resident enquired about the possibility of introducing a unitary authority system.

Coun Cooper said he would welcome a unitary authority, calling the current two-tier system “illogical” and “wasteful” but stressed Harrogate would need assistance from other districts.

He said: “This system does not make it clear to the public who is responsible for what. I'm a county councillor but even when I wasn't one, people still came to me about potholes.

"They don't know the difference between the two authorities. That is not the fault of the people, it's the fault of the system so I would ideally like us to be a unitary authority.

"Unfortunately you have to have a certain size of council for it to be viable. We would have to combine with Craven, Selby or York.

“So we would disappear and there would be a unitary base. It’s not easy, it takes two to tango and at the moment I’m the only one dancing.”

Mixed response to Masterplan but more consultation promised

The town centre Masterplan was also criticised by a resident who complained about the pedestrianisation plans, outdoor eating spaces and the fact it was being “bulldozed through”.

Despite concerns that the Masterplan did nothing to "enhance the town centre's ongoing attraction", Coun Burnett stressed that plans would ultimately be beneficial and there would be more consultation ahead.

Coun Burnett said: “There was a mixed response to the plan. Even though the plan is approved, if proposals are to be enacted then there will be more detailed proposals with further consultation.

"I agree we should not lose our identity of being different and I don't think we will do. We only suggest things which allow us to hold on to our identity."

Chain restaurants are here to stay

With Ask, Byron Burger and CAU now in the new Everyman cinema complex, one Harrogate resident asked if enough was being done to protect smaller independent restaurants.

The resident that complained that not only were the plans a 100 per cent loss of retail space in the town, she argued that the chains would make Harrogate "not worth visiting".

Coun Burnett said that although the council would look at more support in planning and development, she did not want to be “too critical” of the chains.

She stressed both chains and independents were the “lifeblood” of the town centre and that the council needed to support both.

She said: “In a political sense, we want to make sure all new businesses are supported.”