Reflections from Councillor Andy D’Agorne, Deputy Leader of the Council
From those first cases a year ago it was impossible to imagine the suffering and challenges that were to follow, in spite of the fantastic way in which our residents, communities, businesses, health workers, partners would pull together to coordinate mutual aid and kindness so quickly. It seems hard to imagine now how quickly ‘working from home’ would be embedded as the means by which essential council services could continue to operate, support for vulnerable residents could be organised, and phone lines, facebook and what’s app groups established for volunteer coordination. As public transport reduced, some bus drivers were trained up to support our refuse collection service and helped out delivering government supplies. Staff in some areas were quickly moved to new roles to cope with new demands brought about by the pandemic. In recent weeks, our council, well-practiced in responding to flooding, has done so again, at the same time as dealing with a pandemic, with winter gritting required at the same time!
During the first ‘lockdown’ we had little idea of how long it would be for, but the ‘daily exercise’ in glorious spring weather and the dramatic slump in traffic gave everyone a taste for outdoor exercise and a real sense that as a society we can make dramatic changes in the way we live when faced with such a threat – something we need to harness to tackle the climate emergency as part of ‘recovery’. In the summer, our ‘recovery and renewal strategy’ was quickly adopted, including the extended ‘foot streets’ in response to government direction to facilitate outdoor catering / hospitality– something that York businesses and residents keenly supported, marking York out as a distinct success compared with many other town centres. Despite the difficulties balancing different interests, Fossgate and Castlegate were relatively successful while other ‘pop up’ changes such as Bishopthorpe Rd shops proved to be more controversial, as city traffic levels returned to normal.
The experience in recent months has proved more challenging in terms of infection rates, particularly during the period when York was a ‘Tier 2 island’ surrounded by Tier 3 areas whose residents were drawn to the ‘Christmas experience’ in York, even if they had to pay for a meal with their pint! The fact that this coincided with the arrival of the new variant and ending of the second lockdown inevitably saw our infection rates leap from the lowest to the highest in Yorkshire. Our fantastic NHS staff have had to cope with the massive increase in pressure and we have had a ‘wake up’ call to redouble all the precautions, track and trace measures, self isolation etc. Even though vaccination is progressing well and the infection rate has halved, it is clear that we must continue to act as though everyone around us could be a source of infection and remember that the vaccine may not block the spread of the virus. We must be like the responsible parent with a sick child eager to start eating again: Sips of water. And remember if at all possible, please be sensible when it is icy so as to avoid broken limbs and additional pressure on the NHS Accident and Emergency department.
In terms of what we can do as individuals, we must also do everything we can to support our local independent businesses – ordering their take-aways or online offerings, sharing their social media posts etc. The big retail changes that are accelerating in terms of the shift to online shopping will see big changes in our historic city centre, shops, pubs and cafes closing and a real need for a new vision of how York city centre can re-invent itself to focus on new types of economic activity. Done in the right way this could be an opportunity for small start-up businesses, regeneration of the arts, survival of some traditional pubs and cafes, mixed in with some new sustainable living spaces. If it is just left to decisions of corporate absentee landlords and developers we could miss an exciting, innovative once in a lifetime opportunity for our fabulous centre. I would urge residents, businesses and other partners to work together, engaging with the ‘My city centre’ consultations and help us to realise a truly transformative plan for our very special city centre. This should complement not compete with the development of a modern York Central.
Our local neighbourhoods are even more important if we are working from home or have children studying at home – we need a strong community effort to tackle local challenges, working with ward councillors, local schools and communities to ensure that everyone has somewhere safe and attractive for a local walk or bike ride, for children to play, for a supportive community to grow and have pride in. If there is something which stops your community working together, this really is an opportunity to do something about it so that we can come out of this experience supporting each other more, as far as possible more resilient to the emotional and financial distress that is hitting communities. If you can only do one thing I would ask you to talk to a neighbour or someone on your street (socially distanced) to check how they and their relatives are coping. I am looking forward to some spring weather when I will be able to sit out in the front garden to talk to passers by – things will get better but we will have to be patient and careful.
While we might have very different perspectives on the best way forward, I am really proud of the way in which residents, businesses, council officers and councillors from all parties have focussed on keeping people safe and enabling us to support each other in this difficult time.