Stadium juggling act

9:14am Friday 17th February 2012

Planners should soon decide whether to approve plans for new shops at Monks Cross that would enable York’s new community stadium to go ahead. STEPHEN LEWIS looks at the pros and cons.

ON THE face of it, it is a simple enough proposition. A developer has offered York £17 million to build a new community stadium at Monks Cross, together with related community facilities and a new athletics track at Heslington.

In return, the city council is being asked by developer Oakgate to agree to allow 244,000 sq ft of new shops to be built at Monks Cross. One of the new shops would be a John Lewis store.

Things are never simple in York, however. The planning application has divided the city. Many city-centre retailers insist an expansion of out-of-town shopping at Monks Cross could hit their businesses hard, and seriously damage the economy of the city centre.

Oakgate, meanwhile, counters that a John Lewis store would brings more shoppers to York, helping the city compete against regional rivals such as Leeds.

In addition, the scheme will see 1,000 permanent new jobs, as well as 275 during the construction phase.

Both sides have their supporters. More than 1,200 people have responded to a consultation on the scheme. Of these, 693 were in favour, 413 against, and 129 made general observations.

City planners will meet probably on March 22 to decide on the scheme. Here is our own guide to the issues...

The retail impact on York

THE deal Oakgate is offering is effectively to pay for a new community stadium and community building at Monks Cross, and to contribute towards the cost of a new athletics track at Heslington East, in return for planning approval to build three new stores and two kiosks at Monks Cross. One of the new stores would be occupied by Marks & Spencer and another by John Lewis.

There would be nothing unusual in such an arrangement. It is known in planning jargon as an ‘enabling development’. This is a development that would bring public benefits that might otherwise not be possible. Often, an enabling development might cause what planners refer to as some ‘disbenefit’, which must be balanced against the community benefit on offer.

The disbenefit of the Oakgate proposal is that it flies in the teeth of ‘sequential testing’: the principle – set out at national, regional and local level – that town and city-centre retail development should be prioritised over out-of-town.

One of the judgements York planners will have to make when considering the application, therefore, is whether the benefit to the city of the new community stadium would outweigh any impact an out-of-town expansion at Monks Cross could have on shops in the city centre.

There will clearly be some impact. The city council estimates the total amount of retail space in the city centre to be just under 1.5 million square feet. The existing shops at Monks Cross total just under 300,000 sq feet – although The Press understands this does not include shops which sell food. The new Oakgate development would add a further 244,000 sq feet to this.

But what would the impact on city centre traders be?

A report by retail analysts GVA Grimley suggested that in 2016 alone, city-centre retailers could lose almost £90 million in business – equivalent to 17 per cent of the entire city centre turnover in sales of non-food goods. City-centre retailers opposed to the scheme cite this in support of their argument that the expansion of Monks Cross would have a devastating impact on their business.

Adam Sinclair, the boss of Mulberry Hall and chairman of the York Chamber of Trade, has gone on record as saying the Monks Cross scheme represents the “biggest risk the city centre has ever faced”. City-centre businesses simply couldn’t compete with the free parking and ease of access available at Monks Cross, Mr Sinclair says.

“The risk is that we would get a second commercial heart of the city, which would compete with the existing city centre and undermine it.”

Unsurprisingly, however, Oakgate dispute the GVA Grimley figures. Yes, there would be some spending diverted from the city centre to Monks Cross if there were to be a new John Lewis and Marks & Spencer there, the company says. But it estimates the city centre would only lose less than seven per cent of its business, or about £35 million – far less than the GVA estimate.

And overall, Oakgate argues, the lure of John Lewis would help ensure York as a whole benefited to the tune of about £12 million in extra shopping spend a year – and would be better placed to compete with rival centres such as Leeds.

For Oakgate boss Richard France, the clincher is that the scheme would create 1,000 permanent jobs, and another 275 during the construction phase.

“The mantra of the government is jobs and growth,” Mr France said. “This scheme is about both. At a time when we’ve got more than 3,000 people unemployed in York, it takes one third of that out.”

There is a further complication for planners to consider, however.

A central plank of the city council’s medium-term plan for the city centre is the redevelopment of the rundown area around Clifford’s Tower and Piccadilly.

But LaSalle, the company behind proposals for a £100 to £150 million redevelopment of the Castle Piccadilly area, says it would pull out if the Monks Cross development were to go ahead.

There isn’t sufficient shopping demand in the city to support both schemes, said Graham Chalk of Centros, which is acting as LaSalle’s development manager.

“The expansion of out-of-town shopping that’s been proposed would suck the lifeblood out of the city centre,” he said.

Planners will be duty-bound to consider the Oakgate scheme on its own merits.

But the impact of the Monks Cross scheme on the council’s ability to deliver on its hopes for Castle Piccadilly might nevertheless have to be weighed in the balance.

Does York need a community stadium?

THE key call planners will have to make is whether the benefits of a new community stadium for York outweigh the potential impact on the city centre of more shops at Monks Cross.

The stadium proposals certainly look attractive. Oakgate is effectively offering to finance a new 6,000-seater stadium on the site of Huntington Stadium which would serve as a home to York City and the Knights; a community building which would house a range of health and community facilities; and an artificial 3G pitch which could be used for football coaching and would be available for school football and rugby teams and others.

In addition, Oakgate would contribute towards a new county-standard athletics ground at Heslington East. The total value of Oakgate’s contribution would be about £17 million.

But how much does the city really need a new stadium?

Following a meeting earlier this week, all three sports clubs mainly affected by the development have now come out and backed the scheme. Here is what they say:

• York City Football Club says the new stadium is vital to secure full-time professional football in York. The club’s Bootham Crescent ground is a decaying, 1932 stadium which has not had any major investment for more than 20 years, says the club’s communications and community director, Sophie Hicks.

The facilities for supporters are antiquated, the players’ changing rooms have not been improved since the 1950s, hospitality facilities have a view of the car park rather than the pitch, and maintenance costs just to keep the stadium safe are put at £150,000 per season. “To be blunt, the ground is falling to bits,” Mrs Hicks said.

The club estimates it would cost between £8 million and £10 million to refurbish the ground – money it simply doesn’t have.

Even worse, the club had to borrow £2 million from the Football Stadia Improvement Fund in 2004 to buy back Bootham Crescent from the previous directors. The deadline on this loan is 2013. Unless the new stadium deal goes ahead, that loan is likely to be called in. “The only way to repay this would be to sell Bootham Crescent, which would leave the club homeless,” Mrs Hicks said. The club would have to halve its playing budget and go part-time.

That would be a devastating blow not only to the club’s many supporters, but also to its community work, Mrs Hicks said. The club’s community team interacts with more than 15,000 young people every year.

• City of York Athletic Club agrees the deal is too good to miss. Huntington Stadium, where the club is presently based, is no longer fit for purpose as an athletics track, says the club chairman Neil Hunter.

The track needs relaying; and the other facilities don’t meet modern health and safety standards. The long jump pit is inside the track, which means those using it – including children – could be at risk of being hit by thrown javelins or hammers, and the stanchions for the pole vault and the high jump bed have been condemned. Because of the problems, the club may well have trouble getting certification to hold competitions in future, Mr Hunter said.

The new track proposed at Heslington East would be of county standard, with fantastic facilities and equipment.

“It is a no-brainer,” said Mr Hunter. “If it doesn’t happen, what we do is throw away millions of pounds of inward investment. It is about the vision for the city. Do we think we should have first class sporting facilities that will encourage people to be involved in all sorts of sports?”

• York City Knights RL Club has been more guarded until now. The club has made clear it wanted to support the new stadium – but before it could give its unqualified backing said it needed more information about precisely what facilities would be available to the Knights, and about how the stadium would be run and managed.

In a statement released yesterday, however, Knights chief executive John Guildford said the club was now prepared to support the scheme.

“I have always supported the principle of a community stadium, and now my basic questions and concerns have been addressed, the Knights obviously support the vision,” Mr Guildford said. “I am looking forward to the final business case being presented.”

What you had to say

• A selection of comments submitted to the council in response to its consultation:

In favour of the scheme

“This development is vital to support York’s professional and amateur sports clubs, providing a new, modern 6000-seat stadium and community facilities…”

“The new stadium MUST be built, not just because I am a City fan, but for the future of York.”

“The enabling retail element, including Marks&Spencer and John Lewis, is the best, most viable way of providing a new stadium for York and ensuring York continues to compete with other regional centres.”

Against the scheme

“York needs to be developing its city centre rather than continuing to expand out-of-town shopping.”

“It will be far better for John Lewis to move into a building in the city to enhance what is on offer there and thus pull more people into the city, rather than enticing them out of the city.”

“York city centre is special and every effort should be made to keep it that way.”

• You can still have your say: Write to: Readers’ Letters, The Press, 76-86 Walmgate, York YO1 9YN or email letters@thepress.co.uk

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