How Harrogate objections have halted Leeds conference venue plans – for now

When Leeds City Council met to approve plans for a new conference venue last week, the authority would have hoped for a straightforward decision.
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But that was not the case after a flurry of objections came in at the eleventh hour from Harrogate groups who fear the proposals could drive business away from the town and its convention centre.

Those objections were spearheaded by Paula Lorimer, director of Harrogate Convention Centre, who slammed a study which suggested the impact of the Leeds venue would be minimal as “flawed, inaccurate, out of date and in some areas, totally wrong”.

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Proposals for the former Yorkshire Bank HQ were submitted in March and Ms Lorimer claimed there had been an “absence of dialogue” from Leeds City Council.

An artist's impression of the proposed conference centre could look.An artist's impression of the proposed conference centre could look.
An artist's impression of the proposed conference centre could look.

She said she only found out about the plans last week – just days after they had been recommended for approval.

Yet LCC hit back, saying Ms Lorimer and Harrogate Borough Council’s chief executive Wallace Sampson had been alerted to the proposals months before they were submitted.

“This was August last year… we haven’t heard anything since,” an LCC officer said.

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Ms Lorimer responded to say the proposed venue was now a third bigger than originally planned and that the study which suggested up to six per cent of trade could be diverted away from Harrogate Convention Centre had been underestimated by 50 per cent.

She told last Thursday’s meeting: “We would have expected to be consulted in advance of this application.

“If this had taken place we may have avoided having to take the route we have done today by objecting.

“Unfortunately we were left with no choice.”

Harrogate Borough Council’s tourism body Destination Harrogate and the town’s Crown Hotel have all come out against the plans.

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Harrogate District Chamber of Commerce and Harrogate Business Improvement District are also objecting.

In a letter to the city council, Destination Harrogate said the Leeds venue could have a “hugely detrimental impact” on Harrogate’s tourism offer which it described as the “very lifeblood of this town”.

The letter also said it is “essential” that a proposed £49m development of Harrogate Convention Centre is supported, while the Leeds plans should be “re-evaluated”.

“Failure to do so exposes the Harrogate district and its hospitality sector to significant employment threats and economic damage,” it said.

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David Simister, chief executive of Harrogate District Chamber of Commerce, said in another letter: “Harrogate Convention Centre plays a significant role in the Harrogate district’s economy – it attracts visitors from all over the world to events, exhibitions and shows.

“It helps support a wealth of businesses – hotels, guest houses, restaurants and in turn their suppliers and it brings jobs.

“Having worked in the hospitality sector, I know how vital Harrogate Convention Centre is to Harrogate town centre.”

Bringing a conference venue to Leeds has been a long term ambition of the city council which will no doubt be determined to push ahead with the plans.

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The question is how much weight it will give to the objections from Harrogate Convention Centre, business groups and the borough council which have always been considered friendly neighbours to Leeds.

The proposals will now be brought back to another meeting of Leeds City Council in September.