Chris Barrett of York Central Action says the coronavirus crisis has changed everything – and it should change the plans for this huge development too
York Central is indeed central. One of the largest redevelopment sites in Britain, it will be of vital importance to the city’s recovery from the coronavirus crisis.
It could be the linchpin of a major shift in the city’s economic destiny, harnessing our enormous heritage assets to our growing and dynamic creative and digital industries.
York Central could be launch pad for new start ups linked to the biotech sector developing at the University of York. And it could and should be central to a target for making York a more equal, affordable and sustainable city by 2030.
This was true before the onset of the Covid-19 epidemic, but it is even more true now. Coronavirus has changed everything, the health of the city, the basis of our economy, the city’s finances, the housing market, the jobs market, the environment and our options for the future.
Housing market fantasy
No one knows precisely where we will be in six, 12 or 24 months time. But what is clear is that the current plan for York Central has been holed by the impact of the crisis.
The proposals as they now stand are based on a vibrant speculative private housing market, where the demand for one and two bedroomed flats continues unabated.
This is a fantasy, as every economic forecast predicts a major fall in house prices as potential buyers stay put, worried about the impact of the downturn on their jobs. York needs more houses for families, not high rise apartments.
What’s more, York Central, as planned, also gives primacy to car use, squeezing all other forms of transport to the sidelines. Never mind that York residents, after three months of lockdown are questioning their dependence on the car.
Never mind that the council itself is looking at banning non-essential vehicles from the city centre and is committed to a zero carbon future by 2030.
One might have expected the City of York Council and its partners on the York Central development to adjust to this new reality.
But regrettably, their attitude seems to be ‘plough on regardless’. A planning application, based on the old assumption, is wending its way through the system as if nothing has changed.
We argued in March for radical changes to be looked at to futureproof the York Central proposals. Our views were broadly shared by several key organizations including York Civic Trust and York Cycling Campaign.
Others, including the Vice Chancellor of the University of York Charlie Jeffries and Greg Dyke, chair of Make It York, have backed the enormous job creating potential of York Central.
There is an opportunity to change course. The council has announced that in the coming months they will be debating a recovery plan and carrying out economic assessments of all major schemes including York Central and Castle Gateway.
This is the time to examine how York Central can contribute to the renaissance of the city and the region. The current plan is dead in the water – but there is a realistic prospect of a national infrastructure drive and a new set of national priorities.
This will involve less car usage and a healthier lifestyle, a greener approach to development and moving the city away from its over dependence on hospitality and tourism.
Review the plans
City of York Council and its partners should formally pause the work on the current plan and undertake an in depth review of the best way forward right away. They should consult with all the stakeholders involved.
York Central Action, a coalition of various local groups, has been involved in discussing the future of York Central since its early stages. These are our suggestions:
- Car usage should be designed out of the whole scheme
- The scale of housing should be significantly reduced and integrated with the 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 employment and mixes inward investment with provision for local start up businesses
- Transport proposals should be significantly revised to create a network of useful bus and walk/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.
To kick off the review, and to demonstrate that a new approach is needed, start by rebranding the development York Central 2030, expand the strategic partnership board to bring in a wider range of voices, and designate the site as an eco-flagship development.
We call on our civic leaders and its York Central partners to respond imaginatively to our proposals. Putting our heads down and blundering on regardless risks more than failure, it risks ridicule.
When the facts change we must all change too. Seize this unprecedented opportunity now.