BUSINESS Secretary Vince Cable has suggested new funding opportunities may open up for a key York development site next year, as the Liberal Democrat spring conference brings him back to his roots.

The York-born politician returned to his home town yesterday as the three-day political event began at the Barbican, and praised local traders who he said had been pivotal in ensuring York’s place among the best city-centres in the country for business.

Dr Cable reaffirmed his claim that leaving the European Union would be disastrous for the UK, following the Conservative commitment to a referendum on membership in the next Parliament – and said he hoped this would not be the last time the Lib Dems chose York as their conference destination.

Speaking about the York Central “teardrop” site next to York Station, which is considered crucial to the city’s economic future, but has been difficult to fund and develop, the Business Secretary said: “The issue has been raised with me repeatedly, including by York Central MP Hugh Bayley and the council’s chief executive (Kersten England), so I’m aware of the problem.

“The Government now operates through local enterprise partnerships which have to set out their priorities and then go to some of our funds, like the Growing Places fund, which are intended for local infrastructure.

"Actually funding that infrastructure is very difficult, so it is up to the city and the local enterprise partnership to determine whether this site is a priority and put in a competitive bid for some of the costs.

“In 2015/16, local enterprise partnerships will have access to more money and there will also be more access to European funding streams, so they will decide how that is used.”

Dr Cable said York’s “strong tourism sector” had played a major role in the city’s fight against the recession and its two universities “make a massive contribution to the local economy”, but also marked out York’s traders as a driving force.

He said: “I was in York before Christmas and the city-centre was absolutely buzzing – it’s clearly one of the most successful centres of any city in the UK.”

During that visit, Dr Cable was critical of some aspects of City of York Council’s Lendal Bridge traffic trial. He said yesterday: “As a Government minister, I try to avoid getting drawn into arguments about local traffic issues, and the detailed mechanics of the scheme are something which needs to be discussed locally.

“But where the local Liberal Democrat party involved me was because they felt there had not been proper consultation, and that seemed to be a perfectly legitimate line of argument.”

Dr Cable said his fears over the impact leaving the EU would have on the British economy were based on “evidence collected in my job and constant interaction with big investors”.

He said: “Car manufacturers, banks and international companies invest in the UK on the assumption they can continue to trade freely within the European single market.

“Not being able to do that would be exceedingly bad for UK business. The debate following the Tory commitment to a referendum on Europe is already casting a blight at a time when we desperately need confidence and new investment.”

The former Poppleton Road Primary School and Nunthorpe Grammar School pupil said securing the conference was “a great credit to York”. He said: “I love coming here - it’s a great city and I have many roots here.

“York has made itself an attractive conference venue and, while it’s not my call, I would hope our conference will come here again.”