COUNCIL leaders have moved to manage expectations that it will be handed £7.1m of government money to overhaul the heart of a county town.

A meeting of Hambleton District Council’s cabinet heard numerous councillors stress that challenging for a share of the £1bn Future High Streets Fund to improve Northallerton’s town centre was “a good news story” in itself, and “a very exciting time for the town”.

Councillors approved submitting a bid to the Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government to challenge 100 other towns nationwide for funding, winning bids for which will be announced at the end of September.

The authority’s deputy leader, Councillor Peter Wilkinson warned councillors the Hambleton bid faced tough competition, while the authority’s leader Councillor Mark Robson suggested Northallerton’s MP, Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak “might want to lend a little bit of support” to the bid.

The £15.4m overall scheme, which would also be funded by councils, the local enterprise partnership and businesses, seeks to address what the Conservative-led authority has concluded are the key challenges facing the High Street, which its says are likely to be further exacerbated as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Major concerns in Northallerton town centre include an over-reliance on traditional retail as a way of attracting visitors, a lack of leisure venues, a limited evening economy, a congested High Street and a lack of a social hub.

The authority’s plans to transform the heart of Northallerton include developing a leisure and digital-led mixed use centre featuring a cinema, restaurants, cafes, and a post-18 education hub, to provide a cultural asset and stimulate the evening economy.

In addition, the council wants to change the use of long-term empty spaces above shops on the High Street, to create affordable homes, buy land to create an “artisan craft yard” and develop a large, flexible events space on the High Street.

Councillor Bryn Griffiths told the meeting that restrictions on which places could bid for the government money had left the smaller market towns in the district disappointed.

He added: “Northallerton is the county town and needs work on it and I am fully supportive of that. It’s the other market towns that are getting left in limbo.”

The Stokesley Liberal Democrat councillor also questioned the need to spend money creating more space for events and improving access, stating: “I thought we had an event space in front of Northallerton Town Hall and there’s plenty of accessibility on the High Street, pavements are already very, very wide.”

Cllr Wilkinson replied: “At the moment the town centre space is limited. Larger, more flexible space to enable more types of events to be held there.”

The meeting also heard a congestion-busting scheme involving a roundabout on Friarage Street had initially been examined in partnership with North Yorkshire County Council as a possible feature of the overall programme, but it had not been possible “to make it stack up” as part of the bid.

Councillors were told the district and county councils were continuing to develop plans to tackle traffic backing-up in the Friarage Street area.