THE timing of York Civic Trust's wide-ranging 'manifesto' for smartening up York could hardly have been better.
With elections just a couple of months away, politicians will be looking for popular ideas that could give them the edge.
The Civic Trust's 'Sustaining the City Beautiful' report is certainly full of ideas.
It is essentially a 'shopping list' of improvements - some big, many small - that the Trust would like to see made in the city centre.
These range from cleaning up the 'smelly, damp and dark' Leeman Road tunnel to getting rid of A-boards, making better use of the city centre's overlooked open spaces, sorting out the 'awful' pedestrian access at the railway station and making the Piccadilly/ Parliament Street junction better for people on foot.
The report contains 23 suggestions in all, grouped either as 'minor works' or as 'major capital projects'.
But the report's author, Civic Trust vice chairman Sir Ron Cooke, stresses that the Trust isn't suggesting the city council should pay for all of it.
Local businesses, other public agencies, developers and even individuals have their part to play too, he says - and the Civic Trust itself has a modest 'civic enhancement fund' which could also contribute. "Much can be done by private funding and partnerships," Sir Ron said.
As to those who complain that this is yet another report which focusses on the city centre and ignores suburbs such as Acomb - well, yes, it does, Sir Ron accepts.
The Trust hopes that similar programmes can be prepared for suburbs such as Acomb and Fulford in future, he says. But there is an urgent need to focus on the historic city centre. Many of the public areas in particular are shabby, cluttered, dirty and sometimes downright oppressive.
That isn't good enough in a tourist city which attracts seven million visitors a year - and in which 23,000 jobs depend on tourism, Sir Ron believes. York faces increasing competition from other cities in the UK and Europe for its seven million visitors a year. It cannot afford to be complacent.
You can read the full, 22-page report for yourself on the Civic Trust website, www.yorkcivictrust.co.uk/ But here are some of the key suggestions...
• Refurbish 'Marble Arch', the pedestrian tunnel on Leeman Road leading to the National Railway Museum. It is 'smelly, damp and dark', Sir Ron says - and hardly the best introduction to York for the 800,000 people a year using it.
Improving the tunnel could be a relatively cheap fix involving better lighting and a 'facelift', or a more comprehensive programme of work: lighting, graffiti-free panels to line the walls, plus work to stop leaks which cause damp and staining.
• Rubbish bins. People constantly complain about litter, unsightly bins, and dirty streets, the report says. Suggested improvements include installing cigarette bins (at £75 each in strategic locations); adding extra bins in certain areas; and building wooden 'corrals' around groups of bins so they look less ugly - for example at City Screen and in Market Street
• Ban A-boards. These are intrusive, unsightly, cause problems for people with disabilities and can be dangerous when they block pavements and force people into the street, Sir Ron says. They are also unfair competition, if some businesses have them and others don't.
The council should enforce a strict ban, and shops and other businesses could use signs fixed to walls instead if needed.
• More cycle parking in 'appropriate places'. Several new cycle parks have recently been created, but with demand increasing, more are needed, the report says. "Locations are needed near to, but not on, pedestrianised spaces... Costs should be included in the cycling budget."
• Repaint shabby 'street furniture' such as junction boxes, streetplates, signs etc BLOB Clean up snickelways. These are characteristic of York and could be a delight, the report says. "But they are often shabby, poorly maintained and... oppressive." Rubbish bins should be moved out, snickelways should be cleaned more thoroughly, and lights fitted where there are none.
Major capital projects
• Improving access at York railway station. Traffic management at the station is 'terrible', the report says - and the exit for pedestrians is 'awful'. This is the first experience of York some visitors have, and it can be a 'nightmare', Sir Ron says.
Improving things shouldn't be too difficult, he believes. One suggestion under discussion is to redesign the street layout so that taxis and cars leaving the 'drop off' area immediately outside the station no longer have to go around Tea Room Square, but turn right directly onto Station Road.
The short-term car park, meanwhile, could be used instead by people with long-term parking passes - people who leave their car at the station on a Monday and pick it up again on Friday. This would mean less congestion at the Tea Room Square side of the station. Short-term parking, meanwhile, could switch to the other side of the station, where long-term parking now is.
Improvements to the railway station entrance could be made as part of larger changes to the station. The cost could be shared by the city council, Network Rail and train companies - initial city council costs were estimated at £25,000, the report says.
• Improving the Piccadilly/ Parliament Street junction.
This area is much better since the 'splash palace' was knocked down, the Civic Trust report accepts. But further improvements are needed if significant numbers of pedestrians are ever to be encouraged to walk down Piccadilly from the city centre. At the moment, traffic and railings act as a barrier separating the pedestrian city centre from Piccadilly.
The Trust recommends removing railings, repaving the junction with paving stones to make it look more pedestrian-friendly, then altering the timings on the traffic lights to give pedestrians plenty of time to get across (between half a minute and a minute each time, Sir Ron suggests).
The cost of doing all this has in the past been put at about £1 million, the Civic Trust report says - but could be considerably less. "The roadway is already in need of repair, so the improvement of the junction could be part of that project," the report notes.
• 'Chill out' areas. York is very lucky in having more than 20 small 'open spaces' in the city centre: spaces that would be ideal for people to 'chill out', relax, eat sandwiches, make telephone calls, etc, the Civic Trust report says. Some of these have been beautifully restored and looked after - such as the garden next to St Anthony's Hall. Others, however - such as the small space off Davygate - could be much nicer.
CHILLED: The garden next to St Anthony’s Hall – a chill-out space that works
Other suggested projects:
• Improving the Rougier Street/ Lendal junction
• Redeveloping the 'Merchants Quarter' between the River Foss and the city walls at Walmgate, plus the area around Clifford's Tower
• Improving the look of the former warehouse buildings on the east bank of the Ouse (possibly by adding 'trompe l'oeuil' designs
• Completing a pedestrian footpath between Ouse and Lendal bridges
What local businesses say
Frank Wood, chairman of the York Retail Forum, welcomed the Civic Trust report. "It gives us a general plan to move forward," he said.
Times were still fairly tough, he added, so it wouldn't be realistic to expect local businesses to put in a lot of investment. But for the right scheme that wouldn't involve too much cost, he said, "I'm sure businesses would contribute to it".
Adam Sinclair, chairman of City Team York - the private-sector-led initiative which aims to set up a Business Improvement District (BID) which would raise £1million through a business levy to improve the the business environment within the city centre - also welcomed the report. "I fully endorse Sir Ron's document," he said.
Personally, he was very much in favour of getting rid of A-boards, Mr Sinclair said.
Making it easier for pedestrians to get down Piccadilly - especially with the recent emphasis on regenerating the street - would also be good. With the right development, that area could be transformed and the area around the Eye of York improved, Mr Sinclair said.