"IT IS difficult to breathe life into a business that is dead," warned a leading business figure at a major conference in York.

York Business Week, now in its tenth year, kicked off today with a virtual conference focusing on the challenges facing the city as it seeks to emerge from the pandemic.

Greg Dyke, chairman of Make It York, which organised the week-long programme, welcomed the keynote speakers who highlighted how York could play to its strengths during this period of revival during a sessions on economic recovery and resilience.

"We are facing an enormous challenge with Covid-19 and the national lockdown and it is going to take a monumental effort to get through this," he said. "The theme today is build back better."

He added: "York has so far fared better than many other larger cities, if judged by figures of footfall in the city centre and average spend in retail shops. Some of the national brands with units in York reported that they recovered quicker here than other places but we are still expecting redundancies."

The conference line-up included City of York leader Cllr Keith Apsden, Beckie Hart, regional director, Yorkshire & the Humber, Confederation of British Industry (CBI), David Kerfoot, Chair of York & North Yorkshire Local Enterprise Partnership, and Jon Geldart, director general of the Institute of Directors.

Harrogate-based Mr Geldart told delegates the furlough scheme had helped many businesses, but he believed there would be more unemployment when it ends, with the long-term cost ultimately falling on business.

"It is very difficult to revitalise and breathe life into a business that is dead," he said.

"Particularly in this region, we are so reliant on tourism and leisure, and those businesses have had to essentially not just put people on furlough but they are closing down, they are shutting down the life support systems. Once it is gone, it is gone.

"That's why I worry - not because of the lack of resilience and ability of businesses to be agile but because it's pretty difficult to be agile if you're six-feet under.

"That's why it's so important that we encourage government to push for the regionalisation and devolution of accountability and finance because the best people to be able to understand what is right for the locality are those in the locality."

Cllr Keith Aspden, City of York Council leader, said the city's response to the crisis had brought communities and businesses together as they adapted and supported each other.

"That's why I believe that we can build back better and York can lead the recovery in the region."

Highlighting the council's response, he said: "To date we have processed over £110m in financial support to local businesses including our own £1m local emergency fund which we set up to support micro business who fell outside government support."

The council has also put in place a one-year recovery and renewal strategy with goals such as its transport plan to create a people-focussed city; social care plans to protect the most vulnerable; and its bid to communicate clear public health messages and build confidence among residents to support businesses.

Cllr Aspden highlighted the importance of major projects like York Central to support the recovery.

"York Central has the potential to drive regeneration in the city post-Covid by creating an estimated 6,500 jobs and up to 2,500 homes as well as a range of high-quality public spaces and a new sustainable transport network in the heart of the city."

This week, CYC's planning committee is set to determine a reserved matters application for the first phase of infrastructure works of this multi-million brownfield site development.

"York Central is an opportunity many other cities across the UK would envy so we must continue to work together to progress the scheme and ensure its success for the benefit of everybody in York," said Cllr Aspden.

"York has faced significant economic challenges in the past, for example the changes to its confectionary industry and the loss of Terry's chocolate factory, but the city has been able to continually reinvent itself and use the city's educational institutions to retrain the workforce that was a constant feature.

"That's why we have committed to develop a 10-year city plan with our partners through a new York Strategic Partnership to build on York's strengths and address the key challenges in the city that will help determine our recovery from the pandemic."

Cllr Aspden stressed that York must continue to lobby government for backing and to provide the funding needed to 'seize the opportunities that are unique to the city'.

"We have the talent and opportunity here in the city to secure a strong recovery."

In a Q&A, the speakers were asked what was the top priority for York to accelerate its recovery post-Covid.

*Check out the full programme of York Business Week events - which are all free and virtual this year.