Cllr Ian Gillies is the Leader of the City of York Council.
When I look back at what our joint Conservative-led administration has achieved in York over the past four years, I would like to think the electorate, on the second of May, will look on us with some degree of favour.
We’ve passed a creditable Local Plan that most of the city can live with, a feat previous administrations have been unable to do. We’ve progressed an ambitious programme of updating our accommodation for older people. The council has embarked on its largest house-building project since the 1970s, beginning by developing council-owned land with a mixture of schemes to make at least 40 per cent of the properties truly ‘affordable’: either for rent at the lowest available council rate, or to buy under share/purchase schemes. It will include starter and family homes, wheelchair accessible bungalows, and apartments for over-55 downsizers.
My personal emphasis in the year that I’ve been Council Leader has been to push forward several major developments to the point where they are now up and running and ready to be progressed over the years ahead. Chief among these has been the massive York Central or ‘teardrop’ development, a 72 hectare brownfield site all but enclosed by railway lines, which York has sought to develop for years but, given the infrastructure difficulties, has until recently remained a derelict wasteland.
Following the site’s designation as an Enterprise Zone in 2015, a partnership among Network Rail, the National Railway Museum, Homes England, and the City of York Council (who own only five per cent of the land but are also the planning authority) has now progressed the development to the point that its regeneration plans received outline planning permission from the council last month.
Key to our plans is a grant from the Government’s Housing Infrastructure Fund, which is now with the Minister. As an example of what we’ve been up against, our Labour MP has been vociferous in her objections to our development of York Central on a variety of grounds, most recently because of ‘corporate greed’ and the alleged lack of proposed ‘affordable housing’ on the site (she is wrong in both instances) and she has currently asked to call-in the development despite the time-sensitive nature of our Housing Infrastructure Fund bid, which is of course competing for funding for other projects around the country.
Suffice to say that when Labour were in power they managed to secure a modest sum for what would have amounted to a footbridge onto the site, “a beginning” they said. Four years later and we are almost ready to move to the next stage of a reclamation project which will have a hugely positive effect on the future housing, employment, and cultural offer for York.
Therefore I think the City stands at a crossroads and, as usual for York, the political landscape is complicated, even without the current upheavals at Westminster. The last election saw the three major parties (the Liberal Democrats remain a force in York) roughly level-pegging with no overall majority, which is why we formed a joint administration with the Lib Dems, allowing us into administration for the first time in decades.
We also have a number of Green and Independent councillors. The number of Independents has swelled over the last year due to councillors leaving established parties – particularly, let’s be fair, the Conservatives, as a result of what has to be characterised as personal infighting. As a result we did lose some momentum during the middle of our time in office, which I think we’ve recaptured this last year.
If you add to this mix the fact that we will be fighting our administration partners for many of the same seats, our party’s Brexit woes, and York voters’ tendency to punish all incumbent administrations, you can see why I began this piece ever so slightly coy regarding our prospects. It’s up to us to get our message across to the voters, but are they listening? I understand that news from the doorstep is mixed.
Looking back, on being elected in 2007 and immediately becoming Group Leader, the first challenge was not to enter a coalition, as Labour and the Lib Dems had an equal number of seats, giving us the balance with our seven Councillors. I believe we learned a great deal. The next four years saw us in opposition to a Labour administration. Being the main Opposition resulted in us ejecting Labour in 2011, again increasing our numbers and going into coalition with the Lib Dems who, although not our natural bedfellows, allowed our Conservative-led administration to make big strides to achieve many of our goals.
There have been issues along the journey, but relationships have been built with the mainly Conservative areas in North Yorkshire. We have also benefited as a City by being a member of the West Yorkshire Combined Authority and Leeds City Region, as well as two Local Enterprise Partnerships.
Although we always could have done things differently, I am confident that York (voted Britain’s favourite City), is in a better place now than in 2015.