Wealth of history pays dividends for York retailers bucking footfall trend

Renowned for boasting more than 30 museums and tourist attractions, named the most haunted city in Europe and with a year-round events calendar, it would be easy to assume that medieval York’s international appeal as a tourism hotspot ensures it is immune from the downturn of British high streets.

Councillor Keith Aspden (left) and Coun Ian Gillies, leader of York City Council, pictured in Stonegate in York city centre. Footfall in the city centre grew last year to buck the national trend. Picture by Gary Longbottom.

The city is the UK’s second most visited, research by holiday marketplace company Snaptrip suggests.

According to Visit York, 6.9m people visit the city annually, spending £564m each year. Over the past five years, the total number of visitors has increased by nearly 500,000 and total spend is up by more than £100m.

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Yet a glance down Coney Street, the city centre’s main shopping artery, reveals nine of its 46 shops lie empty.

Coney Street in York city centre where nine of its 46 shops are currently vacant. However, York has the second lowest shop vacancy rates in the whole of the country. Picture by Gary Longbottom.

The leader of York Council and a former Lord Mayor, Coun Ian Gillies, said: “The problem is, like a lot of other places, a lack of big department stores which have closed down, concentrated on Coney Street.

“With all the vacant boards it looks like it’s in intensive care but it isn’t.”

In fact, a recent report by think-tank Centre for Cities explained that York has the second lowest shop vacancy rates in the country.

Just 7.03 per cent are empty, bettered only by Cambridge (6.92 per cent).

Attractions such as York Minster and the City Walls help attract 6.9m visitors to York annually. Picture by Marisa Cashill.

Despite national retail sector turmoil and the growth of internet shopping, the level of shop vacancies in York city centre is lower than it has been for the last three years.

Nonetheless, Coney Street is a concern within the city. Coun Gillies said the relatively larger units along the street make the problem a difficult one to tackle.

“A lot of shop owners want to keep their units for retail purposes but they are not keen on splitting them into smaller units. It’s a conversation that is ongoing but without great success.

“We would like to see places like an indoor market – it’s good to look at different ideas.”

Coun Keith Aspden, the council’s executive member for economic development, added: “There is no doubt that some landlords are going to have to work hard to make sure they get a good return on their premises.”

Over the past 15 years, the number of people employed in retail in the city centre has fallen by 20 per cent – some 1,100 jobs have been lost as bigger retailers like Woolworths and BHS have gone bust and others have chosen to open at a plethora of out-of-town sites, such as Clifton Moor, Monks Cross, Vangarde and York Designer Outlet.

At the same time, employment in the food and drink service has risen by 40 per cent and by a staggering 700 per cent in cultural and creative sectors.

It is an indication of how York’s city centre offer has changed. Half of all retail units are now cafes or bars.

Coun Aspden said: “York saw an increase in footfall in 2018 and part of that is its shops, but it’s also leisure and sightseeing.

“We are not immune to the challenges that city centres are facing but we have a unique offer and that puts us in a good place.”

Coun Gillies said he was not overly concerned by the trend of more bars and eateries opening in the city.

“The only control we have is through planning. If a unit has been closed for 12 to 18 months, then good luck to them. It’s the good ones that survive and hopefully this drives up the quality," he said.

“With licensed premises there are extra things to take into consideration, such as licensing regulations that they have to go through. We have an impact zone in the city and if they want to open a bar on Coney Street for example, the onus is on them to tell us why the license should be granted.

“If you take Parliament Street and onwards up to the Minster, as soon as one of those shops becomes vacant it is snapped up.

“York needs to set a standard in its offer because we are not a place full of charity shops and bookmakers on the main shopping streets like you get in a lot of smaller towns.

“York attracts people from a much broader area and people are very loyal because we are different to anywhere else.

“It don’t think you can replicate it elsewhere because York has such a mixture of heritage and footfall.

“We are certainly not complacent but we have a fantastic product to use - the city itself.”

He added: “All we can do is promote York as a destination and a public realm and we try to keep the public realm clean and attractive.”