The Press quiz Council leader Ian Gillies on various development plans in York | Investors Forum YorkInvestors Forum York

There’s a lot going on in York at the moment. In an exclusive interview, council leader Ian Gillies talks to STEPHEN LEWIS from York Press about the ‘state of the city’

He discusses PROGRESS on York Central, on the York local plan, on finding a new use for the Castle car park – and even on the community stadium. It’s all happening in York at the moment.

But there are problems, too: more and more empty shops, some of the most potholed streets in the country, a desperate shortage of affordable housing – and a crisis in finding at the city council. With just eight months to go until the next election, we put the council’s Conservative leader, 72-year-old Ian Gillies, on the spot about some of the most important issues facing York today, in what amounts to a ‘state of the city’ interview…

The York Local Plan

This hefty planning blueprint holds the key to deciding how York will develop for years to come. It identifies where houses, roads, schools, shops, offices and industrial units can be built. And it will define what is green belt and what isn’t. York hasn’t had a valid local plan for something like 60 years. Successive administrations have tried desperately to produce one: only to lose power at an election and see their work undone by an incoming administration of a different political colour.

We are now, after years of political squabbling, finally close to getting a plan. A draft was submitted to planning inspectors at the end of May. But will it pass muster? Crucially, the draft identified only enough housing land to build 867 new homes every year over the next 15 years. The government’s own figures, however, suggested York would need to build 1,070 new homes each year to meet demand.

On receipt of the draft plan, government planning inspectors quickly raised concerns about the amount of land identified for housing, and asked the council to justify its figure of 867 homes a year, with evidence to prove this would be enough. Council planning officers have been working on a ‘response’, which was due to be submitted to the government last week.

Cllr Gillies says future population projections keep changing, which means the estimations of housing need keep changing too. He says the council now plans to invite inspectors to sit around a table to discuss what, if anything, still needs to be done. “I have asked them to come up and talk to us, so that we can work together,” he says. “I’m not saying that the plan is perfect. But we need it.” At the end of the day, he says, the council will accede to any demands the inspectors have.

Once finalised, the plan will need to go to a public inquiry. Cllr Gillies is determined that that will all be done and dusted, and the plan adopted, before next May. “It is important that we get this done before the next election.” Given York’s history on this, we all know why he feels that way…

The York Central site

Following extensive public consultations earlier this year, an outline planning application for the huge teardrop-shaped site behind York railway station was submitted to council planners last year. It envisages up to 2,500 new homes, as well as shops, offices, an extension to the National Railway Museum, a new entrance to the railway station – and a new ‘great park’.

Much of the detail is still lacking, because the application is only in outline. But there have already been major controversies about the best way of getting access to the site. None of the proposed routes for a major new access road were perfect, Cllr Gillies admits. Proposals for an access road from Holgate were ultimately rejected, in favour of a route coming in from Water End in the west. The Holgate route was rejected, Cllr Gillies says, because “that area is too busy and it would have disrupted too many people.”

Two major controversies have continued to occupy headlines recently, however – the National Railway Museum’s desire to close off Leeman Road to through traffic, and plans to install traffic lights at the ‘Marble Arch’ tunnel. Cllr Gillies says he understands the resentment of people living in the Leeman Road area at the prospect of the road being closed. But though traffic will take a different route, he says: and cyclists and pedestrians are only being asked to take a diversion around the museum that will add about 100 metres to their journey. “It is not that much longer. So why not?”

He isn’t convinced by the proposals for the Marble Arch tunnel, however. “I think it should be two-way all the time,” he says. “I don’t support the proposal of some of my officers to have a traffic light system.” He’s very keen that there should not be too many delays over York Central. The council is seeking between £130-£140 million in public funding for infrastructure costs (such as the access road) from organisations like the government’s Housing Investment Fund (HIF), the Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) and other sources. Much of that funding would be time-limited, so could be lost if things drag on.

Once the planning issues are decided, he says, the council’s job will be to build the access road and clear the site. Then it will be a question of finding the right investors and developers willing to move in and build. That could all still take years.

Castle Car Park

The aim is to put in a planning application to build a new, multi-storey car park at St Georges Field by the end of this year. Once that car park is built, it will free up the Castle Car Park for other uses, Cllr Gillies says. The Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre which set up there over the summer has already proved the potential of the site. “That shows you what could be done!” There is already talk, he says of a temporary Viking hall being put up on the same site next year after the Viking festival.

Bootham Park Hospital

The council and local health organisations missed the first chance to put in an offer for Bootham Park Hospital when NHS Property services invited bids from public bodies late last year. The building was subsequently put on the market, and there was talk that it could potentially be developed into flats. The council, York Hospital and the Vale of York CCG, which commissions local health care, belatedly woke up to the opportunity. A ‘moratorium’ has now been secured to allow them to ‘come up with a plan’, Cllr Gillies says.

This might involve using the Grade 1 listed building as a health centre, for mental health use, or for sexual health or drugs clinics. It may also be possible to use part of the site as accommodation for key workers such as doctors and nurses. And who would pay for all this? The NHS previously planned to sell it on the open market, with proceeds going into national health coffers.

Can the council or local health organisations afford it? “There will be a price, but we won’t pay £7 million for it, I will tell you that for nothing!” Cllr Gillies says. He believes that it should be possible to put together a deal on ownership of the building. “We’re all government agencies.” A report setting out a proposal for use of Bootham Park will go to the health minister by November, he says.

Community Stadium

The stadium complex will be ‘topped out’ this week, Cllr Gillies says. “And it will be ready for June next year. It will be a wonderful facility for the city.”

Spark: York

City planners ruled last month that the shopping-centre-in-old-shipping-containers in Piccadilly will have to cover up with timber cladding. Unfortunately, they aren’t able to set a time limit for Spark to do that. Spark has undoubtedly brought new life to Piccadilly, Cllr Gillies says. Nevertheless, he adds darkly, “if they (Spark bosses) have any sense they will do it (install cladding).”

New council homes

Cllr Gillies harks back to the years after the Second World War when people like him were growing up, and there was a good supply of council and social housing. We need something better than the so-called ‘affordable housing’ stipulated for many new developments today, he says.

Thanks to changes in the law, local councils are now allowed to use housing revenue income (money they take in council rent) to build new homes. “Where we own land, we can now put housing on it for social rent,” he says. “Hopefully, we will start doing that.” The council will be developing more than 550 new homes across seven sites in the next few years, he says, at Lowfield, Burnholme, the former Askham Bar Park&Ride, the old Manor school, Hospital Fields Road, the former Clifton Without School and at Woolnough House.

Work will start on 165 new homes at Lowfield (40 per cent of them ‘affordable’) early next year, with the first homes ready by Christmas 2019.

Empty shops

Coney Street is in ‘intensive care’, Cllr Gillies admits. The city council does have the power to reduce rates, and will consider doing so. But it will only do so by developing a policy for the whole area, not on a property-by-property basis. And it won’t do that until the owners of the properties reduce the rents, and also hopefully break the units up into smaller sizes so they are attractive to smaller businesses.

The council knows who owns what properties, he says. “And we are talking already.”

Potholes

Earlier this year The Press revealed that York’s smaller roads were the most potholed streets in the country. A few weeks ago, five cyclists were seriously hurt when they came off their bikes after hitting a pothole in Wigginton Road, underlining just how bad York’s roads are.

So what is Cllr Gillies going to do about it? Not enough money has been spent on maintaining roads in the past, he concedes. The trouble is, the council doesn’t have money to burn. There is some money available, but it is about setting priorities. “Would we like to fill every pothole? Of course. Do I have the money to do it? Unfortunately not.”

Council finances

The city council has seen its budget trimmed by about £100 million a year in real terms over the last ten years, Cllr Gillies says. In that time it has also lost staff numbering in the ‘high hundreds’. You only have to look at the examples of Northamptonshire and Birmingham councils to see just how difficult many local authorities are finding to balance the books.

In York, which will have to make further savings next year, there is real pressure on the budgets for adult social care and ‘looked after children’ – two absolutely key priorities. Without a local referendum, the council can only increase council tax by 4.49 per cent at the most, Cllr Gillies says. So funding is tight.

“My biggest challenge is to deliver a budget which we can afford but which will deliver services to the people of York,” he says.

This article is courtesy of The Press, please visit their website for more local news. For advice or further information on property developments in York, please contact:

Alexis Hanford or Jane Paver from the InvestorsForum York on

01904 652729 sam.chandler@cityletsyork.co.uk jane.paver@cityletsyork.co.uk