The Councilsplanning committee have rejected plans to establish a Roman visitor attraction on the lower floor of a block of flats on Rougier Street. The building would have replaced the (rather less than iconic) “Northern House” 60’s office block.
Opponents of the scheme cited the building’s size and the lack of affordable housing units to justify their decision.
The developers now have the options of appealing against the decision, submitting fresh plans or walking away from the City.
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 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
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.
The latest claimant count figures for York show a total of 4995 residents now unemployed. This represents 3.6% of the population.
Perhaps not surprisingly – given the health restrictions – unemployment has increased by 51% compared to this time last year.
York’s employment rate, however, remains higher than either the regional or national averages.
The figures do not include those who are on “furlough”. It will become clearer in the autumn how many of these jobs will be sustained into the future. The country is now in recession (economy shrinking), so recovery may be slow.
In York the important visitor economy is slowly improving. Traders will be hoping that this trend is sustained in the important period up to the new year.
After that, things are less predictable with the roll out of an effective conronavirus vaccine likely to be a key driver of any recovery.
The Council has revealed that its forecast financial deficit for the current year is around £3.9 million. However, the biggest potential hit on its finances comes from a forecast £16 million loss of Business Rate and Council Tax income. This would be the result of businesses closing and unemployment rising.
The Council has still not identified how expenditure savings may be made nor has it attempted to reduce interest charge payments by trimming its capital programme.
The York Council economic development report says how it plans to help the York economy recover from the ravages of lock-down. It updates a previous plan which was criticised for a lack of identified actions, targets, and milestones.
The report says that the impact of the COVID lock down has varied across sectors but is most significant where “serving customers face-to-face is at the heart of the business model – retail, hospitality, cultural attractions and personal services”.
One aspect to the report which may cause concern is the lack of clarity on the medium-term impact on unemployment in the City. It highlights the view of the Local Enterprise Partnership which forecasts the loss of “17,500 jobs, including 6,500 in tourism and 2,400 in retail”. If true, then York would go from having almost full employment to a record 15% level.
The report says that around 15,000 people currently work in the care sector in York.
An alternative forecast, from Oxford Economics, says that if a vaccine is rolled out in 2020 then there will be a swift return to full employment. A core (more likely) forecast, based on re-openings on the current timetable and gradual lifting of all restrictions, suggests that employment will continue to grow in York despite the impact of the pandemic.
Only a second wave, and renewed lockdowns in autumn 2020, would result in permanent losses of around 3900 jobs.
So it seems, like the population as a whole, the Council doesn’t know what will happen next. The report concludes “What we are already seeing is sharp increases in benefits claims, and we need to plan for at least a short-term spike in job losses”.
Against that background it is possible to have some sympathy for the Council as they decide their short term economic recovery strategy.
One of the few measurable actions arising from the report is a request to central government for a business support grant of £15 million (possibly £10 million depending on which paragraph of the report you read, 51 or 60).