The six threats to York city centre – and how to combat them

More quality retailers are needed in York. Photograph: Richard McDougall
3 Mar 2014 @ 9.52 am
| Business
Where to next for York city centre?
Where to next for York city centre? Photograph: John Vause

adam-sinclair-headshotAdam Sinclair is the new chair of City Team York, tasked with improving the fortunes of the city centre. Here he sets out how York can tackle the challenges it faces

mix-six-logo-rightYork is in a good place. But York has no divine right to continue to succeed. We live in changing times.

The line between success and failure is very thin. We need to work hard to create opportunities.

A lot of our success is based on the distinctiveness and cachet of York city centre. That’s something we need to nurture and protect at all costs.

City Team York must work together with the city council to face the challenges. I think we have got the best council officer team we have ever had.

We can do business with them and work with then to generate the opportunities that this city needs.

Here are six challenges facing York city centre – and how we can tackle them.

1. Online retailing


The quality and spend of footfall in the city centre is deteriorating. One reason for this is the advent of online shopping.

To get people away from their screens to do some shopping in the city centre is a challenge.

Better digital marketing of the city will help. Another answer is to make York’s car parks cheaper and more convenient.

We should introduce two hours’ free parking between 9am and 11am every Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Let’s get people in. Many of those people will end up staying longer anyway.

Our car parks should have pay-on-exit machines which take credit cards so visitors don’t need to rush back to fill the meter – or leave the city.

It’s not all about price, it’s about ease of use.

2. Declining appearance

An artist's impression of the new Hiscox HQ planned for Hungate
An artist’s impression of the new Hiscox HQ planned for Hungate

Our city is suffering from an increase in empty and poorly maintained premises and civic space.

We can’t expect the council, civic trust and conservation trust to look after all our buildings.

Instead we need to attract new private and public sector organisations to move into empty premises, use them and maintain them.

On the plus side new investments like the Star Inn The City, the York Minster piazza, Reinvigorate York and West Offices are giving the city centre real cachet.

The arrival of international insurer Hiscox is an excellent start – but we need three or four more similar firms to follow them into York.

York should also introduce a business improvement district, paid for by a levy of one per cent on the business rates.

This money could then be invested in improving the public realm. And that way we get away from the begging bowl which keeps being passed around businesses – which some contribute to and others ignore.

3. Out of town shopping

Monks Cross; Photograph: Google Maps
Monks Cross; Photograph: Google Maps

First we must resist any further expansion of out of town shopping. There is and exceptional amount around York and it puts the city centre at an economic disadvantage.

The queue of retail brands wanting to get in to the city centre as recently as three years ago has all but evaporated.

We need to reverse that trend and attract quality retail names – the likes of Russell And Bromley, Space NK and House Of Fraser.

York city centre should have a John Lewis branch to complement the one moving to Monks Cross. And we must support existing stores like Fenwick, to give them the confidence to continue investing in their city centre outlets.

Cheaper and easier city parking will also help combat the convenience of the retail parks.

4. Lack of new attractions

The NRM. Photo:
The NRM. Photo:

In recent years York city centre has fallen down the target destination rankings for visitors.

The city must look to introduce new world class cultural attractions, grasping opportunities when they arise.

If a public and private organisation is looking to establish a museum or other attraction, York has to do all it can to bring it here.

Here we must prioritise long term over short term gain.

5. Lack of quality retail investment

Pavement, York. Photograph: Richard McDougall
Pavement, York. Photograph: Richard McDougall

There has been a proliferation of fast food cafés, hairdressers, bars and betting shops in York, some of which are now in prominent locations.

I enjoy a café and a pub. There’s a place for them. But over-proliferation of these businesses, and of convenience stores, is perceived as a decline in the city centre.

Some of our planning strategy needs to be refined. We have got to theme the city more.

At the moment we’re in danger of having a lowest common denominator strategy for the city centre – so anyone wants to move in can do.

I worry about the impression given by Goodramgate as the introduction to York for many visitors heading through Monk Bar to the Minster.

Fossgate is potentially a great street with great eateries. But I don’t think it looks great at the moment.

There are far too many empty shops. Some of those shops owned by the Merchant Adventurers are vacant for the first time in my memory.

Micklegate has its challenges. Colliergate is experiencing problems. And these are conduits for tourists and investors.

And we must remember the art of selling York to inward investors is largely the same art of selling York to tourists. Every inward investor starts as a tourist.

6. Anti social behaviour

More café culture please… Photograph:
More café culture please… Photograph:

Anti social behaviour can be a problem, particularly in the evening. Attracting a high class cultural attraction and more financial and professional services to the city will help to counter this.

We need our city centre to stay open later in the spring, summer and autumn. We’ve got to get rid of this culture which persists in York that people go home for their tea at five o’clock.

This means a public realm embracing the café culture. We want to work with Reinvigorate York which is doing a great job of enhancing the city centre.

We might launch apprenticeships for young people to work in the tourism and hospitality sector, partly with a view to help keep the city buzzing in the early evening.

Making this happen

York needs to take a triple leap – on Lendal Bridge, on car parking and on the business improvement district (BID).

I can’t support Lendal Bridge being closed without a contemporaneous boost for car parking. Reduce the price and increase the convenience.

If we can do that we can move forward on the Lendal Bridge issue and expect support for the levy needed for the BID.

We must also set up a Newco. This is the organisation which would develop and digitally market the city centre, as well as oversee the improvement of York’s public realm.

There are too many bodies in York all talking about the same things and costing money to administer.

The Newco would be a unitary-wide presence taking on board tourism, economic development, the city team and maybe the science park as well.

In the end it doesn’t matter so much what businesses think, the politicians think or even the residents think I’m sorry to say. It’s what the markets think. It’s what the investors think.

That’s the harsh truth about what’s going to preserve our standard of living, our income, our earnings potential over the next 50 years.

That’s what’s going to insure this city against economic hardship, and ensure it thrives in the decades to come.


  • Adam Sinclair is chief executive of Mulberry Hall, Stonegate, and chair of City Team York
  • City Team York was launched in August 2012 under the initial chairmanship of Cllr James Alexander, City of York Council leader
  • It is made up of key stakeholders from business, professions and attractions in the city of York working together to guide the direction and focus of the city centre