No cars, truly affordable homes and lots more jobs: A new vision set out for York Central

Lots of potential: York Central. Photograph © Google Street View
21 Jan 2020 @ 6.09 pm
| Opinion

Chris Barrett, of York Central Action, puts forward an alternative plan for the huge development site

Ask people in the streets of our fair city what they know about York Central and most will counter with a blank look or a scratch of the head. A new railway station perhaps? A local music venue? A few might know that it is some sort of development but will be vague on the details.

Which is a shame and something of a surprise, because York Central is one of the biggest development sites in England, taking up a space equivalent to half the existing city within its medieval walls.

And, according to its promoters, York Central is a “project of huge ambition” which will create “vibrant and distinctive residential neighbourhoods, cultural spaces, and a high-quality commercial quarter.”

It will, says the partnership which has put it together (Network Rail, Homes England, the National Railway Museum and City of York Council), be “at the heart” of the city and “provide the homes the city needs and grow its economy by 20%.”

Sadly, the reality is that York Central, despite its scale and all the hopes invested in it, will fulfil none of these promises, if it goes ahead as planned.

There are lots of reasons why not. But here are just a few.

Ignored suggestions

York Railway Station. Photograph: YorkMix
Firstly, despite what they describe as a ‘groundbreaking’ level of community consultation, there is little or no sign that the partners behind the development took on board any of the suggestions that the community made.

Indeed, at the planning committee meeting which approved the outline plan, the lead consultant, when asked how the community consultation had changed the scheme, struggled to identify anything at all.

Nowhere does the current plan recognise the immense economic value of the rail hub that is York station and the transport connections which are the envy of every town and city in Yorkshire and Humberside.

A jobs-led plan would maximise the potential of employment related development, from offices to cultural facilities and address the fact that York is haemorrhaging good office, professional and administrative jobs.

Instead the current proposal is to use most of the site to build up to 2,500 homes. Most of these will inevitably, because of the constraints of the site, be expensive apartments with high service charges.

Unaffordable homes and car trouble

At a time when housing in York is less affordable than almost anywhere else in the region virtually all this housing will be beyond the reach of ordinary households. Just 14% of the site is proposed for social rent and far less are likely to be delivered.

City of York Council has acknowledged that family housing needs are not best suited to a high density, contemporary urban living environment of this type. Families need to be rooted in community style developments served by the right infrastructure to accommodate their needs with safe space for recreation.

Car ownership and usage in this already congested area will increase dramatically, with the inevitable consequences for traffic disruption and air pollution, which are already above acceptable levels.

A recent survey showed that most York residents already see congestion and air pollution as one of the major problems facing the city. There is no real attempt to address energy usage on this major site. Do we want York Central to make these problems even worse?

These omissions from the York Central plan will make it near impossible for the city to meet its zero carbon target by 2030.

What’s more, the existing masterplan fails to provide adequate alternatives for travel by bus, cycle or on foot. There is no clear plan for integrating York Central with the rest of the city centre area, which again will have a huge impact on proposals for making the centre car-free.

Finally, it is revealing that there is no economic strategy for the site despite its central location.

What could be done differently?

The map of the famous teardrop-shaped site
It’s not too late to change course. There is still an opportunity to realise the original idea that York Central should be ambitious in its aspirations, remarkable in design, and extraordinary to experience.

The new government has declared a Northern Infrastructure “revolution”. York could call for a national and local government rethink under this banner.

A structured economic plan for the city, including York Central, should be developed alongside industry, the universities, York College and the wider business community with a new set of principles to drive the development. These would include:

  • The strategic partnership board should be expanded to bring in a wider range of voices with an interest in the economic future of the city
  • The site should be designated as a 2030 eco-flagship development
  • The site should be central to a target for making a York a more equal and affordable city by 2030.

How could we do it?

  • Car usage should be designed out of the whole scheme
  • The scale of housing should be significantly reduced and integrated with business, retail and leisure to create a vibrant and sustainable community
  • The employment area should be increased
  • The development should be re-phased to allow the remaining housing to be built early
  • An economic masterplan should be produced independently which sets out options for development of the employment area and mixes inward investment with provision for local start-ups
  • Transport proposals should be revised to include more bus and cycle routes
  • Infrastructure plans should be integrated with the plans for the city centre, making York Central a complementary city centre urban neighbourhood, rather than an isolated island.

In pointing out the flaws in the current plans, York Central Action is not seeking to prevent or slow down development of a long-derelict site.

Instead we want to see the partners, including City of York Council, respond to the suggestions made by local people and organisations during the consultation.

By working together, everyone who cares about the future of our city, can ensure that we grasp the enormous opportunity presented by York Central.

This article was written by members of York Central Action. York Central Action is a non-party political citizens action group which works as a loose association of individuals and community groups. We can be contacted at [email protected]