York Press column – New Council must press ahead with York Central project
May 10, 2019
After many hours spent pounding the pavements of York speaking to voters before elections to City of York Council last Thursday, it would be fair to say I hoped for a different result. As I watched the votes being counted on Friday at the Energise Leisure Centre in Acomb, it became clear that York Conservatives had been given a real thumping, with dedicated councillors defeated across the city. As ever in politics, it is vital to respect the voters’ decision, take defeat on the chin, reflect on why this verdict was delivered, and on how to win back the trust of the residents of this great city.
I know from letters and emails from constituents that many York residents voted locally on the basis of national factors, particularly the non-resolution of the Brexit process. Many Conservative voters either abstained or voted against Tory candidates in order to express their dissatisfaction with the fact the government has not been able conclude the Brexit process, and the scale of the local Conservative defeat is therefore in no way a comment on the hard work of Conservative councillors over the last 4 years.
Although it is early days yet, it is clear to me that York residents want Brexit sorted, and this should be through Parliament agreeing a sensible settlement, that implements the clear national decision to leave and chart a more independent course in the world, and also addresses the reasonable concerns of those who are concerned to preserve European trade links and maintain wider cooperation with our closest neighbours.
I very much hope that the victorious Lib Dem Council group, whom I congratulate, continues with the forward-looking policies of the previous Conservative-Lib Dem Council, which sought to invest in our transport system to support the thriving local economy, proceed with sustainable housing development while protecting York’s precious green belt, and keep council tax at sensible levels.
In particular, it is vital that the new Council firmly commit to taking forward the transformative York Central development, while of course making improvements to the plans wherever reasonable.
The York Central site is brimming with potential and provides massive opportunities for our great city. This is one of the largest city-centre brownfield sites in Europe and it will deliver high spec office, leisure and retail space, all within two hours from London through its direct access to York Station. The 2500 homes proposed for the development will make a vital contribution towards the city’s long-term housing needs in a way that enhances rather than detracts from York’s natural environment.
There has nevertheless been some criticism, particularly from the York Labour Party, of the proportion of the site allocated for commercial use, with Rachael Maskell MP formally asking the Government to call-in the application. In view of this, I have recently written to James Brokenshire, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government to ask him to refuse the call-in request, which if agreed, would throw the project into jeopardy and result in significant delays.
In my letter to him I made the case for the commercial element of the site which is required in order to enhance the economic case for the development. Over 6,500 high quality jobs will be created and it will make York a centre for the new digital economy in the North of England. I also highlighted the presence of a large student population and two world class universities in the city and the need to ensure that York is offering high-quality graduate jobs so that students are incentivised to stay in the region once they leave university.
It is important that the disagreements over the composition of the site do not overshadow the very considerable consensus amongst all interest groups in the city behind the need for redevelopment. We cannot allow the project to become a victim of local and national political instability. It is time to make good on years of debate and allow York to see the considerable benefits that the site can bring to the city.