Artists impression of the new St George
Artists impression of the new St George's Field development

An article by Chris Copland (Joint Environment Coordinator)

The spending of an estimated £14 million on a five-storey car park at the edge of Fishergate ward is due to be authorised by the Council this February. Unless, that is, we can work together to persuade the Executive that this is a poor use of our council taxes and shows disregard both for the city’s heritage as well as for its future, as a green and pleasant place for our kids to grow up in. The multi-storey, if it goes ahead, will be dropped onto St George’s Field, at the heart of a conservation ‘character area’ between the Victorian listed assets of the Skeldergate Bridge and the Court buildings, and the Mediaeval gem of Clifford’s Tower. This will block views for those arriving in the centre along New Walk and cut off the Castle district from the river.

Why, then, does the Executive want to proceed with this new Stonebow, a ‘brutal’ structure openly opposed by conservation bodies such as Historic England? The case the Council makes is that they need to replace the car parking spaces that will be cleared around Clifford’s Tower as part of the Castle Gateway project. They have not, however, backed this up with any reliable data on city-centre parking demand, either now or in the future. Indeed, from the independent evidence that has been collected, it appears that there is already adequate spare capacity in the vicinity. A few years ago, for example, when Shakespeare performances were held in a pop-up theatre on the Castle car park, motorists simply used alternative facilities nearby, such as the multi-storeys on Piccadilly. Looking to the future, if the new parking capacity planned for the York Central development is factored in, the closure of the car lot around the Castle will only result in an overall loss of 85 vehicle spaces.

Although the multi-storey on St George’s was approved by the Council’s Planning Committee in January last year, the project has been put on hold ‘in order that further information could be provided in relation to the parking need within this part of the city centre.’ Green Party representatives claimed that it was for this reason they abstained on the approval of the car park. Councillor Rosie Baker of the Green Group made this bold claim at the time:

“Whilst planning permission has now been granted, the car park still isn’t a done deal. I will be insisting that we see an in-depth parking capacity study before the Executive makes the final decision on how to proceed in the summer.”

Well, summer has come and gone and the ‘Strategic Parking Review’i has finally been circulated. Though too late for the November Executive, it is on the agenda for the February 7th Council meeting and, based on the data presented, Green Party Executive members will at last have the opportunity to show their colours

What then is in this Parking Review? Well, sadly, not very much. The information provided is sketchy; there is nothing on the large facility at Piccadilly, for example, and much of the overall data is from the atypical period of the pandemic, when, for health reasons, more people were using their own cars and two of the city’s Park & Ride sites had been repurposed as Covid testing and vaccination centres. There is no information on the capacity at which the other Park and Ride sites have been operating or any data at all on privately owned car parks. The likely impact of carbon reduction policies on car use is not even considered. Professor Tony May of the York Civic Trust has dismissed the Review ii as ‘seriously deficient’ basis for decision-making.

Even had this been a more reliable exercise, organisations like the Civic Trust point out that the whole process ‘puts the cart before the horse.’ The city’s new Local Transport Plan is currently being framed and will be subject to Government requirements due to be released imminently. In the next few months, the Council’s draft strategy on the Climate Emergency will also be put out to consultation. A decision on a major capital project of this kind should surely fall in with the goals of the Transport and Carbon strategies rather than being rushed through before these pivotal plans have been put in place.

There is a strong case therefore for, at least, deferring the decision in February, not just on strategic grounds but also on straightforward principles of good housekeeping. Council officers admit that markets are jittery at the moment because of COVID and BREXIT and, in the absence of data on likely usage of the new facility, it is impossible to predict how many decades it will take to claw back capital costs by piling up parking fees.

There is also a more significant environmental debt to be accounted for, not just in traffic congestion and emissions, but in the carbon and concrete embedded in a construction project on this scale. In a New Year coming straight after COP26, surely our political representatives should be setting a better example of climate resolve.

What then should be done? Here is one interesting alternative that architect, Alan Simpson, set out in a report the Council commissioned ten years ago.

‘Development must face the rivers rather than turning its back on them… The area to the south of Tower Street should be reinvented as a grand city park. Development within and defining the park should be of mixed uses with high-quality frontages to the park and river walkways. Together these spaces and associated development will create a new world-class destination.’iii

Let’s think again about how we develop St George’s Field as a first step in regenerating our city as we come out of the pandemic. This need not involve major capital investment. What it does require is imagination.

 

Labour Councillors have been actively challenging the application for the St George’s multi-storey. If you are concerned, you can play your part too. Write or speak to your councillors and make your feelings known to Andy D’Agorne, Executive Member for Transport. You may want to include in your message some of the points below:

Does the car park make financial sense?

At an estimated outlay of £14 million, evidence needs to be provided that there will be sufficient fees to cover costs and turn a profit.

Does it make strategic sense?

We need to know first whether a project on this scale fits in with priorities being set in the Carbon Reduction Strategy and Local Transport Plan.

Does it make environmental sense?

The lifetime carbon impact of the project should be taken into account, given our commitments under the Climate Emergency and COP26.

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