Updated: TOURIST chiefs saw their plans for a new big wheel in York dramatically thrown out, following an epic and furious debate at the city’s Guildhall.
City of York Council’s ruling executive has voted not to allow World Tourist Attractions (WTA) to use North Street gardens, on the banks of the River Ouse.
In a lengthy meeting yesterday afternoon, conservationists, councillors, WTA and a local pub landlady all waded into the debate, before the executive voted four to one against allowing the attraction in the gardens.
Council leader Andrew Waller and his predecessor Steve Galloway said the wheel was inappropriate in such a historic setting, and near flood defences. But in a spectacular and rare show of division at the council’s top table, leisure chief Christian Vassie broke ranks and openly condemned his colleagues.
He said: “Many thousands of residents across this city look to their council to be doing all it can to protect jobs and ensure that our local economy is protected from the worst of the credit crunch, which is bringing misery, unemployment business closures and insecurity across the nation.
“How is it then, people will ask, that this executive is turning down an attraction that will bring visitors, money and jobs to the city?”
He accused his colleagues of putting buildings before residents and jobs and said the executive must brace itself for a backlash from confused and angry voters.
Jay Pender, commercial director for WTA, said its previous wheel, at the National Railway Museum had been a success but it was time for change.
He said: “We are a market leader. We look to locate wheels in prime sites in prime cities and North Street fits with that.”
After the meeting, he said the firm was “somewhat disappointed” but he said WTA may now look at other sites in York. It had previously said North Street was its only option.
Councillors Ann Reid and Richard Moore withdrew from the debate, as they would have sat on the committee for any future planning application, so the issue was left to councillors Waller, Vassie Steve Galloway, Sue Galloway and Carol Runciman.
Coun Steve Galloway said it was “very disappointing” that WTA had even suggested North Street, as the council had opposed the idea back in 2005. He said: “The North Street site was rejected when first suggested four years ago. Nothing has changed. It would still be intrusive; it would still terminally change what is a central York quiet area. It would rob the city of one of its most photographed and cherished views.”
Coun Waller said he had “considerable concern” about anchoring a wheel in the riverbank, given York’s flooding problems.
He also said: “There is a strong view that this location is not suitable for the development, which would impact on All Saints’ Church, North Street, and that there is not the space to fit all of the features needed for the wheel.”
The Labour shadow executive has also opposed North Street as a viable option, meaning that, while WTA can legally still apply for planning permission, they will not be allowed to build a wheel in the gardens.
Decision welcomed by conservationists
CONSERVATIONISTS were overwhelmingly opposed to the idea of a big wheel in North Street, saying it was out of keeping with York’s historic core.
Philip Thake, chief executive of York Conservation Trust, said: “When those gardens were given to the council, they were not meant to be for anything other than gardens.
“A wheel would dwarf everything around it.”
The gardens were presented to York by Rowntree’s family in 1959, for use by the public. City of York Council needs permission from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation for any other use.
Peter Brown, secretary of York Civic Trust, said such a move would be wrong.
He said: “It was the Rowntree company that gave the land in perpetuity to the city, to be used as a open park and public space for the people of York and visitors, and that covenant is still in force. It is for the city council to respect that original gift and covenant.”
York’s heritage champion, Coun Dave Taylor, spoke against the proposal at yesterday’s meeting, and later welcomed the executive’s decision.
He said: “Of course the city must look at how to attract visitors, but the North Street site is simply not suitable. This enormous wheel would have overshadowed listed buildings in the area and affected important views such as those of York Minster.”
But others were in favour of the wheel in North Street.
Lynn Aaron, landlady of the nearby Yorkshire Hussar pub, said the portrayed “utopia” of the gardens was unrealistic.
She said: “The gardens are unlit and intimidating, and no-one likes to go there. I have spoken to customers at length and we would all welcome the wheel to the area.”
She said the gardens were “virtually a dustbin area” at the moment, and said a wheel would improve security and bring her extra trade.
The firm behind the wheel said it may yet look to find another site in York.
Nigel Ward, chief executive of World Tourist Attractions (WTA), said the company would not rule out other options, but said the firm would wait until it had received official minutes from yesterday’s meeting before deciding what to do next.
Council leader Andrew Waller said he would work with WTA to find a mutually-acceptable site, and said he would work with tourism bodies to bring a new attraction to York.
Gillian Cruddas, chief executive of Visit York, said the wheel at the National Railway Museum had proved popular, so she was disappointed a site could not be agreed for a replacement.
Leisure chief turns on his Lib Dem colleagues
CHRISTIAN VASSIE, the council’s executive member for leisure and culture issues, launched a stinging rebuke against what he saw as “short-sightedness” by his colleagues.
He singled out each criticism of the wheel in turn, and said the executive should not even have considered the issue until a planning application was submitted.
Council leader Andrew Waller had said the council should take a stance in advance, as the landowner.
Coun Vassie said: “At the core of the objection is a sense that the proposal is ‘out of keeping’ with our beautiful, historic city. As if buildings matter more than residents and jobs. It should also be noted that it is precisely because we are a historic city that the operators want to locate here.”
“They don’t put big wheels in Wolverhampton or Slough. Oxford has its dreaming spires – and a big wheel. Paris has the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower and countless other attractions – and a big wheel. Seville, with its stunning architecture, has a big wheel.” He added: “If we vote against this proposal, we must prepare to face the confusion and anger of the vast majority of York residents and businesses, who will be asking what on earth we think we are doing turning away an attraction that would bring real benefit to the city in the middle of a recession.”
Coun Vassie said the views of York Minster from a wheel in North Street could be as spectacular as those of the Eiffel Tower or Sydney Opera House.