Ways of seeing … York

A while back I stumbled upon a rather quaint and dated description of the city of York. Not from the far distant past, but from recent years, in the Guardian’s information on the York Central constituency, on a page apparently compiled around the time of the 2010 election.

In a short constituency profile: ‘York is an elegant town with medieval history, a railway centre and manufacturing industry, plus tourism and a university.’

Manufacturing industry? A railway centre? One university and tourism as an afterthought? When was this written, 1970?

Clearly the Guardian needs to update its constituency profile, which might as well say that York is called Eboracum and has some excellent bath houses, or that we stick severed heads on spikes at Micklegate Bar.

Perhaps for a more up to date view it could refer to a recent article in the Economist, headlined ‘Northern Light’. York has seen many changes.

The article suggests that this is all to do with the current administration and ends up reading rather like a party political broadcast on behalf of the Labour Party in York. Or like propaganda for the draft Local Plan.

It reminded me that there are many ways of seeing a place, and it all depends on who you talk to.

I’ve lived in York for all my 40+ years, apart from three years away at university. I know I’m guilty of that possessive thing you feel when you’re still in, or have returned to, the place you were born and bred, a feeling which increases with the passing years. It’s always odd to read other people’s descriptions of a place you know really well and feel a great attachment to. It’s a bit like someone offering a critique of your mum.

The Economist piece quotes Ron Cooke: ‘Twenty years ago the city, as Sir Ron puts it, was “poor, proud and pretty”.’ I’ve no wish to diss Sir Ron (I wouldn’t dare, he’s a local grandee) — York is certainly proud and pretty — but twenty years ago it wasn’t poor.

In many ways York in 1993 seemed a far ‘richer’ place than it does now. It has lost a lot since, but perhaps that loss is recognised and felt only by some of us, maybe by people of my age and older, from a similar background.

The changes have been massive. Just as in many other towns and cities.

But York was never going to suffer the kind of decline other places did, simply because it’s so beautiful and such a desirable place to live. That was just as much the case twenty years ago as now. It’s one of the reasons I came back. Its attractiveness, as the article states, is its greatest asset. It is attractive because it has managed to retain so many historic buildings and has only a few really ugly ones. But it has buildings from every decade, which is why it’s rather suprising to read again the suggestion that ‘the city council has been fiercely hostile to new building.’ (Andrew Lindsay) When I look at some of the more recent developments I wish they’d been a bit more fierce in their hostility.

All they are really is ‘cautious’, and it seems odd to criticise this approach while also acknowledging that York’s greatest asset is its attractiveness. The hostility/caution regarding new building is what has helped preserve the historic buildings, and their wider setting.

One of the most troubling assessments comes from Danny Dorling, who suggests that York is ‘a chunk of the affluent south east dropped in Yorkshire.’
Is it? Is it really? I would have thought York people would be incensed by this, but it appears to have gone unnoticed. Maybe then we’re not as proud as we were twenty years ago. The city has lost its identity to the extent that it’s a chunk of somewhere else, more like the south east than Yorkshire, and everyone’s happy with that. And what does it say about the rest of Yorkshire: Yorkshire’s a bit rubbish but never mind, York’s alright because it’s like the south east? I’m a bit tired of these patronising London-centric views.

The article, I have to say, has been warmly welcomed and praised by many people. Obviously James Alexander liked it. So did many Labour supporters. Many people agreed that they wanted York to get building new housing as soon as possible, on green belt if necessary. I’ve written about that, discussing the value of the ‘green belt’ and whether we who already have homes should be so concerned with protecting our views and open space when new homes are needed.

How many homes though?

‘James Alexander, the city’s council leader, wants to build around 1,100 new houses a year over the next decade’.

This made me imagine him on a building site with a stack of bricks, building them himself — and I have to say that comments I’ve heard and read from people in the building industry suggest he might have to. Restrictive rules on affordable housing requirements are making building difficult, and according to those in the know the targets are completely unachievable. The piece helpfully (and alarmingly) states that the suggested target is ‘a rate of construction comparable to fast-growing Milton Keynes.’

York and Milton Keynes. I don’t need to expand on that really.

I remember York when it was railways and chocolate. It had its own, proper northern — if slightly posh northern — identity. Now it’s a chunk of the south east and aiming to be a bit like Milton Keynes?

Tag(s): Local Plan

About Lisa @YorkStories

Lisa @YorkStories is the creator, administrator, and writer of content on www.yorkstories.co.uk. She can be contacted on this link or via Twitter, @YorkStories
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  1. Mr Dorling may have seen what some of us in the midst of change,did not.I visited my home town often to wonder and gawp at the Viking Dig in Coppergate,when York had not only Railway Carriage building,and three kinds of sweet/chocolate making,at Rowntree ,Terry and Cravens,but also Vickers fine precision instruments,Ben Johnson and
    Sessions printing works,Adams Hydraulics,the Glass works,Armstrong Patents car parts ,
    Shepherd builders,and armament repair facility at Fulford,among others,all employing thousands of workers on full time 40 hour weeks,with attendant good wages,and satisfying spending power.
    The Viking project,and exhibit,seems to have coincided with the influx of high earners,many of them possibly from the South East,rapidly pushing up house prices,and eroding the working class feel of the place , and introducing(your lovely description)
    ‘Gentrification’.It seems that this’alloying’of York folk with richer incomers,may have robbed the City of it’s gritty working class fighting spirit,
    accepting ‘forelock tugging’ tourism,instead of fighting to either ,save what they already had,or better still get new industry installed where possible.
    Darlington where I now live,when faced with the closure of their companion industry of Loco
    building,fought hard to get new industry.They succeeded,one of which is diesel Engine making
    to which I was head hunted from York,to help create a factory,from a green field ,to 2000 strong plant,on the outskirts of the town.

    Wish it had been York!.

  2. The idea is York as a Medieval Theme park.Camelot on Ouse.Who the hell thought we we could ever change from a manufacturing economy to a service economy ??

  3. P J KELLY

    Please don’t be taken in by the small builders who constantly write to the Press about the affordability quotas killing off housebuilding. It’s nonsense – ask the bigger builders what the problem is and they will all say lack of finance for housebuyers and shortage of available land. Its not profitability – look at the profits the big companies are reporting this year. York’s population grew by 18,000 net between 2001 and 2011 – throughout the recession years. It would have been more if there had been housing available for people from here who wanted to stay but couldn’t afford to. Not building means ever higher prices – that’s simply not fair on many families from York.
    You are right about caution – but there isn’t a decent modern building in the city centre. There’s lots of modern rubbish but they are often the result of caution and compromise rather than letting a good architect do their stuff properly. Hilary House and Stonebow were built in the 60s and could be replaced by something with a bit more flair. But they won’t be if we don’t allow architects to design attractive buildings.

  4. Something has definitely changed in this city over the last few years and I’m struggling to work out what. It definitely changed an awful lot from 95 when I arrived to to the mid-noughties during the long boom period, with house prices skyrocketing. To give you an example a house we liked the look of in 1999 was just out of our then price range at 70k, it’s now on the market again at just under 240k. How we wish we’d found the money from somewhere! We could now afford it but you think to yourself…why pay so much for a relatively modest home ? Comparing house prices here with elsewhere in the country outside of London and its hinterland counties we’re always surprised with just how expensive it’s becoming to live here, there’s lots of the south which is more affordable including chocolate box parts of the West Country. The city certainly seems more gentrified, more touristified (new word?) and generally not quite as pleasant as it once was. Saturdays in the summer in York are really unpleasant with hordes of stags and hens everywhere. I speak to so many born and bred Yorkies who now say they rarely venture into town at all which strikes me as quite a sad state of affairs. I think the city has a choice between new housing and faster growth or a Winchester approach where growth is curtailed and the place the becomes a place where only the rich can afford to live. A very hard call – or maybe’s there’s a middle more pragmatic way ?

    We’re going to be heading elsewhere within the next 18 months and it will be interesting to return in future years as an outsider to see how things have changed again.

  5. YorkStories

    Thanks for your comments on this. There are so many angles to ‘what was York and where is it going’, it’s so vast and complex I think it needs another page, or many … am working on it …

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