Maintaining a vibrant Harrogate town centre

Betty's Tea Rooms Harrogate
Betty’s Tea Rooms Harrogate

by Prof Cathy Parker*

9th May 2016 I was invited to share the findings of our ESRC-funded High Street UK2020research at the 120th AGM of the Harrogate Chamber of Commerce.

Also presenting the future of transport for Harrogate was Cllr Don Mackenzie, North Yorkshire County Council and Cllr Rebecca Burnett, Harrogate Borough Council, provided an update on the Harrogate town centre strategy & masterplan.

About 130 people gave up an hour and half of their evening to hear how retail centres across the UK are changing and how Harrogate is planning to adapt.

As in all places, opinions are divided and tensions between different interest groups run high. Hotels and restaurants want to cater to the needs of the visitor economy, local politicians need to look after residents and many retailers are unsure where growth is going to come from.

Despite being told that the debate could get very heated in the Q&A – everything was very civilised! I was struck by the real interest the audience had for our research findings – with questions focussing on the ‘speciality’ profile of Harrogate, the role of parking in the big picture and the 25 priorities that have the most impact upon town centre performance.

I enjoyed the evening as the other speakers were informed and sensitive to local issues and opinions. It is useful for me to learn more about local issues in Harrogate   – not only is it interesting – this local intelligence validates our models and findings.

Transport/accessibility and convenience are obviously challenging Harrogate. We know these issues are important in terms of impacting on a town’s performance – and as our research showed, as a general rule of thumb, the more a factor influences performance, the harder it is for a location to influence it. So hearing that tackling traffic and congestion problems may take 10 years is depressingly realistic, I’m afraid.

After the presentations I got a chance to chat to Cllr Burnett who was keen to hear my views on the town centre strategy and, more importantly, what the evidence says. It’s always reassuring to meet Cllrs like Rebecca who seek out insight from others, including academics like myself.

My first reflection was that Harrogate should have a more convincing vision. It is a special place – and this isn’t currently clearly reflected in the strategy and masterplan. Without a bolder statement of what the town’s stakeholders are trying to achieve it’s hard to make policies or strategy that really tackle or change anything.

Leadership, vision and strategies came out as very important in our research – but, as one of the members of the audience asked, who is leading and inspiring in Harrogate? Perhaps a small visioning group – of key ‘movers and shakers’ – would help inject a bit more character into the vision?

My second comment related to parking and pedestrianisation. A speciality town can attract people from a wide catchment – so accessibility is important but a certain amount of convenience has to be sacrificed in order for the location to strengthen it’s speciality ‘feel’. However, I don’t think pedestrianisation is the answer either. Fully pedestrianised streets can feel bland and inactive. Flexibility is key. Investing into shared space, temporary access and more variety in the physical realm can make spaces appealing to pedestrians at some parts of the day/days of the week etc but accessible to some traffic at other times.

Finally, we discussed the ongoing management of Harrogate, as town centre management was not funded by the borough council. Towns, like other complex system do not manage themselves – but, on the other hand, a full-time town centre manager is only one approach to place management. Given that many of the UK’s Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) have been so effective at managing the 25 priorities identified in our High Street UK2020 project then BIDs may be a place management model worth considering.

I was very pleased to have the chance to share our research findings and experience – and if the group want to hear more about BIDs or any other aspect of place management – then I would be delighted to come back!

*This article was originally published in Prof Cathy Parker’s blog.

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