York Central profile: Two more tourists descend on city ‘too expensive to live in’

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn makes a campaign speech in front of a large crowd in St Helen's Square, York.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn makes a campaign speech in front of a large crowd in St Helen's Square, York.
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IT WAS an unlikely place for a socialist rally. Overlooked by the Minster’s Central Tower and sandwiched between Bettys and Carluccio’s, a crowd had gathered, in solidarity or curiosity, to catch sight of Jeremy Corbyn.

Two years ago he had been a perennial wanderer in the political wilderness and a month from now he may return there, but on this sunny afternoon in York, he was the man of the moment.

Some 27 hours earlier, and not by coincidence, Theresa May had trodden a similar path. Less than a mile separated her event from his but the gulf between them was much wider, and not just politically. Their different styles, one tightly stage-managed, the other freewheeling, spoke more about the cultures that define the parties today than anything either of their leaders said.

“There was a bit of a chill in the air,” Rachael Maskell, Labour’s candidate in York Central, said of the prime minister’s private rally at the Barbican Centre, choreographed for the cameras before an audience of the Tory faithful. The PM, as she saw it, had turned her back on the people of city.

No-one could accuse Mr Corbyn of so doing. His audience ran easily to 500, and as Labour doesn’t “do” stage management, it was gloriously chaotic. There was no advance party to warm up the crowd or manage their expectations when the visiting party was 20 minutes late, and when Ms Maskell - a loyal Corbyn lieutenant who has served since last June as shadow environment minister - began her introduction, her boss had to hold aloft the loudspeaker so everyone could hear.

Labour’s audience was not pre-vetted. Everyone was welcome, so when someone began to chant into a megaphone, “When I say Tory, you say ‘out’”, not many did.

Any gathering in the centre of York is bound to include a high proportion who do not live there, and even on a quiet day St Helen’s Square is full of people queuing to get into Bettys. The city’s tourist economy supports 20,000 jobs and generates annually around 7m visitors, putting it squarely in the London and Stratford-upon-Avon bracket.

Yet as Ed Young, Ms Maskell’s Conservative opponent, points out, it ranks only 17th most popular among travellers who choose to stay over.

Reawakening the local economy is at the top of the list for a candidate who maintains that York is “not punching its weight” in the marketplace.

“Millions of pounds in funding is available from the Northern Powerhouse, and someone needs to bang the drum,” says Mr Young, a York native and former Minster chorist, who worked in David Cameron’s office, before becoming corporate communications director at Tesco. “It needs someone who can give it a much bigger voice in parliament.”

He believes York should be declared a World Heritage Site and says he does not understand why its leaders are not more vocal in standing up for it.

“It just needs real political clout and leadership,” he says.

Ms Maskell, too, is impatient at the hung city council, of which Labour lost control in 2014.

“York is the most inaccessible city outside the south east,” she says. “There is a housing crisis. People can’t afford to live here.

“But we don’t have a local plan. The council said it would put one in place but it hasn’t. It’s an emergency they are not addressing.”

At the heart of York’s economic conundrum, she says, is its “low-wage economy” and high cost of living. That’s quite a toxic combination. People can’t live here so they don’t come and work here. The only housing that seems to be going up is in the luxury sector.”

In a prosperous city like York, luxury accommodation is not hard to shift, yet its social divisions are clear to see. Ed Young, whose first campaign this is, says his focus will be on jobs - an issue that was pushed up York’s political agenda last month when Nestle announced it was moving the production of Blue Riband chocolate bars to Poland.

“As an MP, your first duty is to support the businesses who are here - make sure their products are on the plane when the PM does trade visits,” Mr Young says. “But you should be just as active in bringing new good jobs to York.

“It’s about salesmanship.”