Battleground Yorkshire: York Outer shows change moves at a snail's pace

“It’s a weird seat, York Outer,” notes one local Conservative councillor.

Rather than being made up of the centre of a major settlement such as Scarborough and Whitby to the north, or Selby to the south, the seat is a mix of York’s suburbs and the small towns and villages dotted around.

Much of its identity can be seen through the lens of being “not York”, and this is seen perhaps nowhere better than through the issue of housing.

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Analysis suggests that almost 90 per cent of this seat is green belt land in the ring around the city, often a barrier to new housing stock for the families wanting to start a life there.

Conservative York & North Yorkshire mayoral candidate, Keane Duncan and Julian Sturdy, Conservative MP for York Outer,  welcome investment in dualling York’s A1237  Outer Ring Road.Conservative York & North Yorkshire mayoral candidate, Keane Duncan and Julian Sturdy, Conservative MP for York Outer,  welcome investment in dualling York’s A1237  Outer Ring Road.
Conservative York & North Yorkshire mayoral candidate, Keane Duncan and Julian Sturdy, Conservative MP for York Outer, welcome investment in dualling York’s A1237 Outer Ring Road.

“If we didn’t have the green belt, a lot of communities would get swallowed up by the city,” says Julian Sturdy, the local Tory MP. “They would lose their village or community identity, the green belt protects them and keeps them as the communities they want to stay as.”

York has not had a Local Plan, which sets out planning and development proposals for new housing, since 1954, meaning that roughly three quarters of this seat’s population have never seen a long-term vision for their area.

However, progress has been made at last and proposals are in the process of being signed off by the council, which, after decades of flitting between Labour, Lib Dem and “no overall control” was won back by Sir Keir Starmer’s party last year.

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For Labour, this presents an opportunity to feed into its national campaigning, a triumph of the builders over the blockers, with the party wanting to build 1.5 million houses in the next parliament and reform planning.

With families moving out of the city centre and into the suburbs, as well as from other areas in the country to make use of the area’s schools which are among the best in the North, there is a captive audience for new housing.

With an increase in remote working, a two hour train from York to London has become a more favourable commute now that it isn’t required every day for many looking to escape the expensive capital.

The increase of “urban young professionals” as well as those in the early stages of retirement post-pandemic has meant the demographics in the seat have changed, making it more winnable, says Luke Charters, Labour’s candidate.

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“I’m renting in the York area, I looked at around 10 properties. It was incredibly difficult to find somewhere that would take my dog and young family with a little toddler,” he says.

However, building will not come without opposition, and local opposition has, in part, led to house prices in the constituency being the second-highest of any seat in Yorkshire.

Tony Fisher, a Lib Dem councillor who is vice chair of the planning committee responsible for new developments, said he has had to thwart attempts by Labour to put up “enormous housing blocks”.

He said that house prices were high due to York being a “very desirable place to live” in addition to a lack of a local plan, which he himself was instrumental in blocking.

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“The 2014 local plan had to be abandoned because myself and another group of activists on the council at the time campaigned against 2,104 houses in a small village called Earswick,” he says.

“My son and his partner earn over £70,000 between them. They could not get a three-bedroom house. I had to take out a lifetime mortgage on my property to give them the deposit to make sure they could afford a decent house.”

One of the main arguments for new homes in the area is that the area barely has the level of public services and infrastructure to support the people already living there.

Michael Nicholls, a Tory councillor for Bishopthorpe, said that despite he and the local MP’s best efforts, the local doctors surgery is closing, the main topic of concern among voters.

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This comes amid new figures which show that York GP waiting times of four weeks or more have increased the most of anywhere in England, and is set to be a key campaigning point for Labour on the doorstep.

Yet, with cuts to local services by local authorities across the country, any future Labour MP in York may find it difficult to defend and stomach cuts when they are imposed by their party both in central government and by the council.

A silver bullet for new housing and the infrastructure to support it, can be through developers building both alongside each other.

“I do get nervous about some of York's villages where public infrastructure is already sort of stretched,” says Mr Charters, pointing to new “garden villages” where developers build things such as a health centre or local primary school.

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Mr Sturdy says that the failure of “successive governments over housing” has seen the issues of housing without infrastructure come up time and time again in York Outer.

Levelling Up has provided some hope of improvement, but this may come too late to save the Conservatives in seats like this where an 18 point majority will be dwarfed by a swing to Labour.

Money to dual the York Outer ring road, which was approved by the council this week, and a new station in Haxby as part of the “Network North” funnelling of HS2 funds are steps in the right direction, but, as with everything in York have come at a snail’s pace.

When Julian Sturdy campaigned on a promise to dual the ring road, he remembers being told “you’ll never get this done, it’s been talked about for 30, 40 years”.

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Similarly for Haxby Station, he remembers a meeting two years into his time as an MP about seeing the support for the station which hasn’t been there since the 1930s.

Though the local MP sees this as evidence that the Government is delivering, the laborious pace of that delivery is ripe for Labour to capitalise on its own plan for an infrastructure revolution.

“Local factors make a difference,” says his Labour opponent, adding that the current MP arguably has delivered “very little” in his “14 long years as MP for York Outer”.

Labour’s message of change may be resonating with voters in the opinion polls, but seats like this are where it will face a tough reception unless the public can be convinced that moving quicker will make their lives better.