Business editor Laura Knowlson asks the new chairman of City Team York, Adam Sinclair, how he plans to tackle the challenges facing the city centre.
LAST month the chief executive of Mulberry Hall was appointed as the first private-sector chairman of City Team York. The group was set up in August 2012 with the aim of improving business growth, resilience and economic vitality in the city centre.
After begining under the chairmanship of Coun James Alexander, leader of City of York Council, Adam Sinclair has been appointed to the role following a selection process.
• Why did you apply for the position of City Team York chairman?
“York city centre is immensly important to the wellbeing and the economy of this city. It is the basis for the economic resilience, good employment levels and good economic growth we are experiencing.
“There are tremendous opportunities in York. It has a tremendous amount going for it but there are many challenges and this is a key moment in time we have got to get through. If we can get through these challenges we have got a great future. If we fail, and decline as a city as result of these issues, it will be difficult to reverse.
“I really think we are all at a tipping point. There may be a belief that York will always be all right because we are York, we are the Oxford and Cambridge of the north.
“I don’t subscribe to that. We are not immune to the pressures of towns and cities across the country. We have got to deal with some important issues against a backdrop of the internet age. It’s not about a single issue, it’s not about whether we close or open Lendal Bridge.
“There are more empty shops in the city centre than there used to be, the internet age isn’t going to go away, and we have access and parking issues. We need to accept these facts and we need to get some positive news out there to sell the city regionally, nationally and internationally.
“I want this work to be done. I want the right thing for the city.”
What are the main challenges facing the city centre economy?
“We are not a single issue city. The number one issue is the digital age, especially internet shopping.
“We are also suffering from a declining appearance and maintenance of the city centre and its heritage, as well as being hit by out-of-town shopping space and a decline in tourism and tourist spend.
“We need to attract high-class retail names and retail investment, while also tackling antisocial behaviour, especially in the evenings.”
• How do you think those challenges can be resolved?
“The way to get through these challenges is by addressing parking. We need to improve cost and efficiency of parking to encourge people to come out from behind their desks and computer screens. Improving parking will also give us a level playing field against out-of-town shopping.
“In terms of out-of-town shopping, we should counteract it with digital marketing.
“There is no point debating the effect that John Lewis will have on the city centre. That decision has been made, they are opening next month, so talking about whether or not it will be good for the city is pointless. We just have to make sure we are doing what we can to overcome that challenge.
“We need to attract new retail names, improve the public realm and continue to resist further out-of-town expansion.
“Doing digital marketing as a city will also help solve the problem of internet shopping.
“In terms of declining appearance and maintenance, we can’t expect the council to manage the upkeep of these for the next 100 years, nor can we expect the Civic Trust or the Conservation Trust to manage them.
“The only way to maintain them is to attract private-sector investment, but that will only come if investors feel the environment is right.
“Again that will come down to getting the cost and convenience of car parking right. We should have pay-on-exit car parks, introducing more relaxation for people who have parked, rather than them having to rush around to get back to their cars before their tickets run out. That will encourage people to stay longer, and won’t affect parking revenue.
“We need a new world-class cultural attraction to help boost tourism. We need to take private and public-sector opportunities, even if the gain is long-term rather than short-term, and we need to take better advantage of access to external grant funding.
“In terms of attracting high-class brands, there needs to be a planning strategy for York city centre rather than just accept any application for any premises.
“Improving the night-time economy will help tackle antisocial behaviour by attracting more families into the city centre in evenings, but again that comes downs to improving the cost and convenience of parking.”
• What are the key aims going forward for the City Team York?
“We are facing a number of conundrums in the city centre. There is the debate over Lendal Bridge, and the idea of a Business Improvement District (BID), which will see businesses pay more tax to fund projects within the district.
“We need to work to solve these conundrums against a backdrop of internet shopping and out of town developments.
“We want to be selling the city to investors, improving the public realm and improve the cache of the city, and aim to get new brands in, boost the economy and employment levels and have York as a beacon of distinction and vitality in the north of England.
“I don’t think we can sell the BID or Lendal Bridge to small businesses without a shift on car parking. We can use car parking almost as an interest rate to stimulate and dampen down the economy. Monks Cross is here, a decsion will be made on Lendal Bridge.
“The only thing we can change is car parking. These three things need to happen together.
“We don’t want York city centre to be viewed just as the place where people come for ice cream and to see attractions.
“We want it to be a place where people come to do serious business and serious shopping. We want people in suits and ties. Professional services are well paid and sustainable long term jobs for York. We want York city centre to be a place where serious shopping is done.”