Retailing in York is facing perhaps its greatest ever challenge – yet the city has the potential to be the top shopping destination in the North of England.

That’s the belief of the York Retail Forum. In its stark assessment, “it would probably be fair to say that retail in York city centre is failing”.

But the forum, which represents many shops in the city, has published its first ever retail strategy which offers a blueprint for a much more positive future.

This sets out the challenges facing this ancient trading city – and puts forward six radical changes that could turn things around.

The challenge

The closure of Burgins Perfumery after 137 years epitomised the city centre struggles. Photograph: YorkMix

In its new retail strategy the forum identifies nine key problems facing city shopkeepers.

  1. declining visitor numbers to the city centre
  2. Saturday no longer being the “busy” shopping day
  3. huge expansion in out of town retail
  4. competition from online trading
  5. parking charges that are higher than even central London over a 24-hour period
  6. larger retailers abandoning the city centre in favour of out-of-town
  7. premium retail units being converted into restaurants
  8. the rise of stag and hen parties, making weekend shopping unpleasurable for families
  9. the rise in the number of empty properties due to the above.

But there is some good news too, says Phil Pinder, chair of York Retail Forum.

“We have got many independent retailers. We have a beautiful and unique city that people want to come to. We have seven million visitors a year.”

Here are six proposals put forward in the forum’s retail strategy to reverse the city centre’s fortunes.

1. Car parking that works for the city

York Castle car park

A U-turn is needed on car park policy. Photograph: YorkMix

Residents who live in York’s suburbs are put off from “nipping into York” to buy a few items by the high parking charges that apply 24/7 – “not even central London operates parking charges on this basis”.

A new policy would promote the early evening economy by offering free on-street parking in selected streets.

The strategy adds:

Working with York BID, we could look to convert more council owned car parks to pay on exit.

This both encourages longer stays, and boosts the economy as people are not worrying about parking expiring.

2. Max the market

Shambles Market. Photograph: YorkMix

“York’s market was recently refreshed for a huge sum of money, yet the renovation failed to address the flow of people around the market,” the strategy states.

It recommends a new layout and more storage for stallholders. Local businesses should get preferential rates to take part in specialist markets.

3. Encourage new shops

New opportunities to fill those empty units… Photograph: Richard McDougall

Lots of ideas to incubate new businesses from the forum, including…

Business incubator
“The creation of a business incubator zone, to allow young business to develop, would benefit the whole economy. We should look to emulate such ventures as Wren’s in Ripon – a department store solely for small independents.”

Pop-up shops
A dedicated manager could usher start-up shops into empty units for trial periods. And a pop-up specialist could be brought in to create new opportunities in York.

Dragon’s Den event
The York Retail Forum will invite participants to pitch their shop idea to an annual dinner audience of 100 participants. The money generated by selling tickets would fund a cash injection to the winning idea. “Working with York BID we could look to offer a substantial amount of prize funding, to help new retailers get their idea off the ground.”

4. Provide better toilets

York’s Silver Street toilets don’t even have a proper sign. Photograph: Phil Pinder on Twitter

York needs more and better public toilets. “It is not acceptable to expect our larger stores and restaurants to take the strain where existing provision has been removed,” says the strategy.

5. Create a safe, vehicle free city centre

Phil Pinder, chair of the York Retail Forum

York was once a pioneer in pedestrianisation – now it has fallen behind. The city is unusual in allowing vehicles onto its footstreets as late as 10.30am.

“It’s probably one of the reasons Coney Street is becoming like it is,” says Phil Pinder, who runs Cuffs & Co on Shambles. “As soon as it gets to five o’clock they open it up again. It kills any chance we have of an evening economy.

“And that’s a big growth area in UK retail – the hours between 4pm and 6pm.”

And the forum has another, more recent, concern.

“In light of recent terror attacks in UK cities, more should be done to consider the impact of allowing vehicles access to the city centre,” it states.

6. Halt the conversion of shops

An artist’s impression of the interior of The Ivy on St Helen’s Square – which is in the former Blacks store

The forum has counted 14 present shop premises that are either being converted or will soon be converted into bars or restaurants.

It is a worrying trend, and should be stopped, they say.

Planning permission to convert existing retail units into yet more eateries should be denied. And more should be done to attract retail names to York.

The forum has identified 40 national brands that York should be actively wooing.

These include the Lego Store, Arket, Boux Avenue – the lingerie and swimwear brand of Theo Paphitis of Dragons’ Den fame – Apple, and Tiger, described as ‘Denmark’s answer to Ikea’.

Too many national retailers think they can only reach a local population of around 200,000 people by moving into York, Phil said.

“But York is unique. It attracts seven million outside visitors a year – many more than Leeds.

“If you are thinking of opening a shop, the only one in the North of England, it should be in York because it offers better opportunities than anywhere else.

“By doing this, we could make York the number one retail destination in the North of England.”