Three key challenges facing York this year

York is almost fully open again, says York BID Executive Director Andrew Lowson. But that doesn’t mean all our difficulties are behind us

It’s been wonderful to see York spring back to life in the last few weeks.  So, we are back to normal right?  Unfortunately not and I suspect the repercussions of the lockdowns will be with us for months if not years, with some aspects of life changed for good.

Precisely what the long-term consequences will be, no one can be sure. But the medium term impact is clearer. I can see three key challenges facing York in the coming year.

  1. Businesses are still on the edge

Most businesses are open and trading again, and that is a huge relief.

Staff at Fenwick in the Coppergate Centre told me they had enjoyed brisk trade related to the return of crowds to York Races in May, which suggests some traditional shopping patterns are beginning to return. 

Half term holiday has been the first good indication of the summer staycation market.  The footfall results are in and they are positive.  Footfall was 18% up on the same week in 2019 (pre-covid).  Interestingly, around 45% of the visitors came from a 20km radius of York, demonstrating that many people enjoyed the sunshine in their local city. 

Many city centre restaurants report being fully booked, and are continuing takeaway businesses launched in lockdown.

Hotels are seeing an average occupancy of around 80% for June and hopefully weekend breaks will change to longer stays as we head towards the summer.  

These are all encouraging statistics. But that shouldn’t blind us to the fact that businesses lost many months of trade last year, which will have a significant ongoing impact. In effect, they are playing catch-up.

For some, this process is hampered by the lack of overseas tourists, who tend to spend more than domestic sightseers – particularly in gift shops, attractions and other businesses geared towards visitors.

We must be alert to the fact that this will leave some York businesses in a vulnerable position, especially when looking at the coming financial year that includes traditionally quiet months of January, February and March. Planning to support businesses through this period must start now.

  1. Many offices remain empty

Many office-based businesses have established online processes and as a consequence are a long way from returning to pre-pandemic routines.

We have all seen commentators in the media predicting a permanent, seismic change in the office sector, with forecasts of empty office space up and down the country.  Personally, I am not convinced.  Landlords in Yorkshire have admitted they have seen a natural drop in demand, but no dramatic surge of businesses looking to break contracts.  

Right now, many companies are consulting staff on what they would like to happen next, with many workers naturally keen to maintain flexibility.  Offices allow people to come together – this fosters a sense of teamwork; a unified philosophy; and those sudden sparks of creativity which come from colleagues collaborating.  It also helps mentoring, especially for young people.

Flexible working does mean some businesses will be downsizing their physical footprint. But this might be to the benefit of city centres.

Aviva in Norwich has a city centre HQ and an out-of-town office. It has recently asked staff where they’d prefer to work – and most said in the heart of the city, for reasons including better transport links, the vibrancy of the environment, and the convenience of having shops and services nearby.  I naturally hope for a similar sentiment shown towards their York office.

Perhaps we will see York companies consolidating within the bar walls, which will be good for other city centre businesses too.

  1. Delivery problems are getting worse

York city centre has long struggled with the issue of deliveries snarling up streets never built for vans and wagons.

And this problem is getting worse for reasons including:

  • more city retailers having online offers – which means they must ship stock into the city and then out again
  • more people living in the city centre – and ordering goods online
  • delivery drivers from the likes of Uber Eats, Deliveroo and Just Eat becoming a permanent fixture in the city – many using cars rather than bikes

 A solution that will be fair to all will not be easy. City of York Council has won funding for pilot schemes aimed at reducing vans and HGVs coming into the centre; and the BIDs new business plan also includes a commitment to researching how to enable greener deliveries.

With this being a complex and evolving area, I suspect we will need both short and long term solutions.  But as a city we cannot bury our heads in the sand, as the issue is not going away. There is an irony that as we talk about building back better, current online trends are actually increasing vehicle movements in and out of city centres.  Surely that is not something we want as the ‘new normal’?