York’s new city centre vision has many positives – but there are a few gaps

We need to involve city centre businesses to make this vision a reality, says York BID Executive Director Andrew Lowson

In November 2018, the York BID invited retail expert Bill Grimsey to talk at a business week event – and he didn’t hold back.

The high street was changing out of all recognition, he told the assembled business leaders. And it would need all of York’s stakeholders to work together on a shared vision if our city centre was to prosper.

That night, I called for the creation of a City Centre Commission to draw up a long-term business plan for the beating heart of York. So when the council launched its My City Centre initiative, we felt like we had helped to kick-start something important.

Last week, the council published its My City Centre Draft Vision. Following an 18-month consultation, the document sets out a blueprint for change under eight themes.

There is much here to be welcomed. Indeed, some of the proposals echo closely the work the BID had already set out in our own business plan, including:

  • the creation of more family-friendly facilities
  • developing new green spaces, and
  • the importance of the burgeoning experience economy.

The council stresses that this is a draft document, and it will be seeking feedback on the proposals before setting anything in stone. I’ve a few thoughts, based on both my own observations and conversations with numerous city centre businesses over the last five years.

Key industry

Quite rightly, a lot of emphasis has been placed on the views of York residents when drawing up the My City Centre vision. And this year, because of the restrictions caused by Covid, many local people reconnected with the city centre, rediscovering the delights on their doorstep. We should look to build on that.

However, we cannot overlook the fact that external tourism is a key industry for York – and the city centre in particular. The reason York has enjoyed a better post-lockdown summer than most is because of the number of tourists who came here – mainly from the UK, but more recently from abroad too. So the needs of the tourism sector must be taken into account in any plans for the city centre. 

I was pleased to see that one of the themes of the vision is ‘Embracing the riverside’. Most Yorkies would agree that we haven’t made the most of York’s rivers – a fact that several local developers are already trying to change. They are bringing forward their own plans to transform York’s riverside for the better. The council would do well to embrace their enthusiasm and expertise – after all, it is these developers who can unlock the private sector investment that will make this part of the vision a reality.

Tangible changes 

Finally, while My City Centre has been an impressive consultation, York’s businesses will judge its success on tangible outcomes. Here are just three things that could make an immediate and lasting impact: 

  • more public toilets in the city centre – start with the basics!
  • a reformed business rates relief policy – this would allow greater flexibility for pop-up enterprises to move in to empty shops
  • and increased capacity in the council planning department, which property forums tell us is often a bottleneck to progress.

Other cities are also drawing up their plans to thrive in a rapidly changing, post-pandemic world. With My City Centre, York now has a vision. The crucial part comes next – turning this into actions.