The centre of York is about to be transformed. Situated a stone’s throw away from the city walls – just beside the railway station – a brownfield area spanning 72 hectares will soon contain 2,500 homes and 120,000 square metres of new office space.
It’s not easy to pull off a major modern development near the heart of a medieval city like York. Historical heritage is in every way the city’s greatest asset – and one which is carefully protected. But an economy can’t survive on pleasant views alone. Hailed as “the number one answer to falling wages”, the project’s aim is to create 7,000 skilled jobs.
Phil Witcherley, himself a York alumnus, is Economy and Policy group manager at the York City Council. He believes the development of the site, project York Central, will help curb a chronic brain drain of university graduates to the south. “York has high levels of skills and education – but there just aren’t the jobs for those people to work in York,” he says. “A lot of graduates from the University have to leave the area or at least commute to Leeds or even long distance to London.
“What we want to do in York Central is match jobs in York with those levels of skill,” he says. “I personally know lots of people want to come back to the city, having moved away early on. We want to make sure that future grads who stay in York can get a job in the centre that matches their potential.”
Phil suggests that alumni who have already moved out of town may also want to consider relocating their business to York. “As a place for business York’s got a number of advantages. Rental costs are lower than in London, if you’re relocating from there. You would have the same quality of office space in a location that’s currently a 1 hour 50 minute train ride to the capital – and with the arrival of HS2 this will be cut down to 89 minutes.
“York is a place where employees can enjoy a better quality of life with access to countryside, the coast, and good quality schools that consistently rank in the top ten in the country. But I suppose York grads don’t really need to be told all this!”
Work on York Central is scheduled to start in 2017, but the sheer scale of the development means it could take between 15 to 20 years to be fully completed.
However, it’s planned for the site to be available for the first new businesses and residents by 2018, with government business rate incentives available to new occupiers over the first five years.
Tracey Carter, Director of Finance, Property and Procurement at City of York Council, calls York Central “an historic moment in the city’s growth”. Like Phil, she studied at York, and feels a special attachment to the area. “It’s about making sure this new part of the city is shaped to be consistent with the high standards of the historic core.”
Reconciling York’s history with forward looking enterprise has been a challenge in the past. “There’s so much tightly controlled planning around the historic core that any modern development has been difficult to achieve on a great scale.” But progress is now well underway.
York Central recently won status as an Enterprise Zone, which Tracey calls a “game-changer” since it means 50% of business rates for the site will be retained rather than being returned to central government. The commercial space – which could reach up to 10 storeys in height – will clearly be a radical departure from tradition. Tracey cites developments at London King’s Cross as an inspiration. “Our ambition is the same: to do justice to the city; to create something out of nothing. Aesthetically, we’ve got a chance to make a great new place.”
“People want to see this under-utilised space developed, and there’s a sense of urgency about it,” Tracey says. It seems that the city of York now means business.