It looks like the popular Peacocks store on Front Street will shortly be closing.
Peacocks is part of a group which includes The Edinburgh Woollen Mill and Jaeger. It was reported last week that the group was in financial difficulties.
So far, shops in the Front Street area have generally managed to survive quite well the pandemic restrictions, with one long term empty property, near Morrisons, set to reopen shortly.
There was, however, some criticism of the authorities when it was revealed recently that a consultant, appointed to report on the remodelling and future marketing of the area nearly 12 months ago, had not yet started work.
A suggestion that, for one or two days each week, the pedestrian restrictions should be eased to allow vehicular access for disabled shoppers, was also ignored.
A report on the Castle Gateway regeneration project published today says that the scheme should go ahead but it says, “there are no plans to close Castle Car Park until suitable replacement parking is available”.
However, the construction of a multi-story alternative on the St George site will be shelved.
The Council’s Executive are being recommended to agree to the “recommencement of the paused procurement of a construction contractor to undertake the design and subsequent construction of the proposed apartments, pedestrian/cycle bridge and riverside park at Castle Mills”
They’re also being asked to approve the design and submission of planning applications for a “high quality public realm scheme on Castle Car Park and Eye of York” while a decision on the future of the site at 17-21 Piccadilly – currently the home of the Spark container village – will be delayed until next summer.
The immediate additional financial commitment for the Council will be £1.5 million. In total the project cost – which was to be funded by borrowing – was £46 million. This would generate additional interest payments of around £1 million per year which would have to come out of what is now an overcommitted revenue budget.
In effect, there will be further cuts in public service standards across the City.
It was hoped that the borrowing would be paid off through the sale of flats which would be built on the former Castle Mills car park site. However, there was still a funding deficit of £4.7 million and no resources were allocated for turning the Castle car park into “a world class open space”.
The Castle car park provides over £1 million a year in income for the Council.
The Council has already spent £2.2 million on consultation and design activities for the project.
The report fails to put the scheme costs into the context of the overall Council capital and revenue budget position.
An oddly detached from reality section of the report claims that the “Castle Gateway masterplan is a “significant opportunity to drive the city’s response to Covid-19 due to the:
Focus on sustainable transport to create new key pedestrian and cycle routes
Reduction of vehicle journeys inside the inner ring road through the closure of Castle car park
Creation of significant new public realm
Enhanced cultural and heritage offer and the creation of a new major event space – building on the city’s unique selling points and expanding the capacity to attract responsible tourism to support the city’s economy
Regeneration and investment in rundown parts of the city Development of new city centre homes, including new affordable and council housing
Capacity to reinvigorate the economy by supporting jobs in the construction sector”
So we have the Benito Mussolini solution to unemployment emerging. Borrowing to fund massive public works contracts which – in the case of the bridge and park – will have no short-term economic benefits (other than perhaps for a handful of the green socialist, city centre dwelling, elite).
Businesses dependent on those who choose to use, because of the health crisis, personal transport when they visit the City, will lose out.
We need to be careful with our commentary.
“El Duce” gained a reputation for having errant stationmasters shot if trains didn’t run on time.
The lowest risk part of the scheme maybe the construction of the blocks of flats. Maybe that could continue, even though rising unemployment, and reducing business rate income, could compromise the Council’s ability to service the planned borrowing.
On balance, the Council really should decide to pause the project for 18 months and review it when the health crisis is over.
A report which looks at how the York economy has fared since the pandemic started has been published today. It looks mainly at the City centre although it markedly fails to reveal traffic levels on, and within, the inner ring road.
Instead it highlights trends on major trunk routes. Generally, these reveal that traffic levels have risen to about 90% of the levels seen in February (which itself is normally the quietest month of the year in the City)
Car park occupancy levels are very high. Castle, Marygate, Bootham Bar and the Esplanade have reached record high levels.
This bears out the conclusion in the report that visitors from outside the City have been coming in large numbers and they mostly drive to City centre car parks.
Park and Ride numbers have slumped along with public transport passengers more generally. Both are down to 30% of the numbers seen in February. Clearly COVID fears account for this change in transport preferences.
The figures provided also don’t provide any information on the numbers using two wheeled transport. Given the clamour for more cycle lanes, that is surprising. Elsewhere in the country the numbers cycling are up slightly (but not when it is raining!).
There may be a lack of data available to the Council on transport patterns.
They admit that only 2 of the “footfall” cameras are currently working and that a replacement system has yet to be implemented. The available data suggests that footfall is around 20% down on the equivalent period last year. The report claims though that spend per head is comparable to last summer.
The numbers claiming out of work benefits has trebled. It may get worse when the “furlough” scheme comes to an end. More stats can be viewed by clicking here
The Council says that it is setting up a “board “ to supervise training initiatives which will counter increasing unemployment.
It is right to focus on education as this will pave the future for the City. It is, however, unlikely that a 20 member committee will be sufficiently agile to make much difference.
The Council approach is likely to be criticised for overly focusing on the City centre. Out of town shopping destinations like those along the ring road don’t get a mention and even local centres at Bishopthorpe Road, Front Street and Haxby merit only a passing review. No footfall figures are provided nor are empty commercial priority trends analysed. In the case of Front Street a promised economic review by a consultant was shelved during the lockdown.
Front Street lies in the Westfield Ward which has the highest unemployment rate in the City
Latest air quality monitoring information published on the Council dedicated web site confirms that pollution levels remain at low levels in the City. Even historic hot spots like Gillygate are recording the lowest recordable level of NO2 pollution.
The Council provides a weekly commentary on air quality
The Council has not published traffic level information recently but a national study by theTravel Technology Forumsuggests that vehicle use is at about 80% of pre lockdown levels. HGV movements have returned to February levels. Bus services are running but with reduced usage.
Cycling activity has fluctuated. Figures suggest that use is sensitive to weather conditions. Relatively few choose to cycle in wet weather and this may result in a further decline as winter approaches.
The latest COVID restrictions may also further reduce the number of journeys being made in the City.
The introduction of street closures in places like the Groves has had little impact on journey times. Alternative routes remain lightly trafficked.
Around 20% of the workforce remains economically inactive. This may change when the governments furlough scheme comes to an end.
In turn any general return to work, and the reopening of city centre offices, may further test the transport system in City.
The latest footfall camera figures for central York confirm that visitor numbers are steadily increasing.
By the third week in August they had reached over 80% of the figures seen during the equivalent period last year.
The figures for the bank holiday are not yet available but it did appear to be busy in the City last weekend.
Comparisons of numbers for the weekends in the earlier part of the month suggest a slower recovery. This may be due to more people visiting the City during the week as they make the most of the school holidays.
The difficulties in arranging foreign holidays may also have given the City a boost.
There is still some way to go to achieve pre COVID numbers with some traders still suffering from the lack of office workers in the City centre.
Still the resurgence – which is born out by the numbers using the City’s car parks – is probably stronger and quicker than many might have predicted.
NB. Figures from some footfall cameras are unreliable and have been excluded for this analysis.
Pleasant weather brought out the crowds in York today. The numbers in the City centre were comparable to a normal bank holiday. Parts of the market were particularly busy with long queues at several food outlets.
The York Council says that it still faces a £20.4 million budget shortfall as a result of the COVID crisis.
The figures will be presented to a meeting next week They vary little from what has previously been published with the bulk of the shortfall (£16 million) being in anticipated reductions in Council Tax and Business Rate income following a rise in unemployment levels. .
The biggest hit is expected during the next financial year when the Councils reserves will hit a low point.
There is still little evidence that the council is controlling its expenditure levels. There has been no freeze on new expenditure commitments.
One encouraging trend is in visitor numbers in the City centre.
Officials say that use is now at 80% of car park capacity.
Footfall is at 70% of normal levels. This is higher than in other cities (50%) and bears out our own observations.
Use of public transport is still much reduced.
Despite the obvious increasing demand for car parking there is no mention in the report about the controversial decision to take 40 spaces at Marygate out of use.
Nor is there any acknowledgement that the number of spaces allocated for disabled use at Monk Bar is excessive. Most there are never used.
These spaces could be generating additional income for the Council and, of course, their occupants would be likely to be spending in local shops, restaurants and visitor attractions.
The income loss to the Council from the 70 unused spaces is estimated to be £5000 a week.
The Council says that changed highways layouts have “largely been well received”. They base this claim on the responses to a survey question (“big conversation”) where 62% said that they agreed with the extension of the “foot-streets”.
This may be so, but the council failed to include questions in its survey about individual actions like the reduction in car parking provision. Without such feedback, it is impossible to judge which of the changes enjoys popular support.
There is no acknowledgement that faulty car park ticket machines and unreliable advanced space availability signs remain an issue.
The Council is promising to consult with disabled residents about their transport needs. It will spend £25,000 doing so.
As usual the suburban and secondary shopping areas are ignored by officials.
There is clearly an economic opportunity for areas like Acomb if they can attract those who feel let down by some of the travel restrictions.
Opening Front Street to blue badge holders, on one or two days a week, would cost little but could stimulate footfall in what is another another beleaguered trading area.