YORK should learn from continental European cities how to make the most of its historic streets and stunning architecture, a leading conservationist argues.

Former University of York vice chancellor Sir Ron Cooke, who is now chairman of York Civic Trust, believes York wins hands down over cities such as Bruges in terms of the sheer beauty of its historic buildings and streets.

What we don’t do is make the most of what we’ve got.

Earlier this year Sir Ron went on a factfinding trip to Bruges, to see if York could learn from the Belgian city.

Both are historic small cities with medieval centres – York surrounded by walls, Bruges by defensive canals.

York’s historic buildings are much more impressive, Sir Ron says – there is nothing in Bruges to compare with the Minster, Clifford’s Tower or the city walls, for example – and also has more interesting medieval street patterns.

Where we lose out, however, is in street clutter, and the quality of what he calls the “public realm”.

Often, as with street lights, it is simply a question of consistency, Sir Ron says.

In Bruges, all street lights are attached to buildings so they don’t block the streets – and there is just a single style of lamp. “York has many different types, cheap-looking lights which seem to come out of the nearest catalogue.”

It is the same with rubbish bins. There is just a single type in Bruges, but several different styles – in “various stages of disrepair”– in York.

And don’t even get him started on signs. They’re everywhere in York, and often completely unnecessary, he claims – he’s particularly annoyed about the huge No Entry sign outside one of York’s most popular tourist destination, Bettys. There are far fewer street signs in Bruges, he says – giving the city a cleaner, less cluttered feel.

Then there are the street cafés. He’s got nothing against these – but in York, he says, they tend to sprawl, with no clear boundaries. In Bruges, the edge of street cafés is clearly marked by borders of green plant boxes. They’re pretty, effective, provide nice patches of colour – and leave visitors in no doubt where the café begins and ends.

The other big difference is traffic. The centre of York is supposedly pedestrianised, whereas Bruges isn’t. And yet somehow there are far fewer cars and vans in the centre of Bruges. He puts this down partly to tighter parking controls, partly to the fact there are far fewer disabled parking bays in Bruges, and partly to the use of stone to pave city centre streets.

“Nearly all the inner city streets in Bruges have stone setts,” he says. “These create an historically appropriate feeling, they deter vehicles and certainly slow down cars and bikes.” In York, where stone paving is used for city centre streets, it has a similar effect, he says.

Bruges also has more public sculptures than York, and fewer bollards.

Many of these things are just details, Sir Ron concedes – but between them they make a huge difference. Bruges feels clean and uncluttered: as though someone has actually thought about the public space. York doesn’t.

What York needs, he says, is more joined-up thinking. “There are two things we need to do. We need to get rid of all the unnecessary street clutter, and then in future be sure that everything new, such as signs or lamps or bollards, is properly designed and consistent. At the moment there’s no consistency here.”

Now is a good time to be raising this issue. Next year marks the 800th anniversary of the city getting its charter. And the city council is consulting on a document called the York Central Historic Core Conservation Area Appraisal.

This, along with a city centre action plan, will help shape the way the historic centre of York looks for years to come.

The document sets a number of priorities, which include:

• Developing a “streetscape manual” to declutter York’s streets of unnecessary signs and improve access to the rivers.

• Reduce the impact of traffic at Bar junctions.

• Commission masterplans for the improvement of Parliament Street, the station area, the Minster precinct, Exhibition Square and the Eye of York.

• Introduce a policy on the height of new buildings in York, so as to protect views of the Minster and York’s other historic buildings.

Many of the things Sir Ron is calling for, in other words. Watch this space.

• The draft Central Historic Core Conservation Area Appraisal can be viewed online via the link below or a leaflet is available from the council offices in St Leonard’s Place.

Comments should be emailed to community.planning@york.gov.uk. The consultation period ends next Monday.