In 2009 I toured the Barbican centre with a group of Councillors. The centre by that time had been empty for four years and was in a shocking state. Gaping holes had let the rain pour in and vandals had ripped out the plumbing and wiring. It was then revealed that it would cost £818,000 to bring the centre back into use. For a long time it was a disgrace to the area, and even now the site of the former swimming pools and bowling green is an overgrown wasteland.
It was a scandalous story of incompetence by the then-Lib Dem administration, parts of the Council, and the dysfunctional property market in this country. Having that happen in Fishergate, on the site of the historic cattle market is bad enough. Imagine something like this happening to York’s Guildhall.
It is in no-one’s interest for buildings to be left empty. Buildings need maintenance, and one as old as the Guildhall, much of whose structure is still the original 15th century stonework, more so than most. Meanwhile we have a flourishing digital media arts sector. These are businesses that don’t require heavy delivery lorries – and often not even much car parking. They are quiet – the ideal occupants for our sensitive historic core. Let’s get them in here, a new ‘guild’ for the 21st century – close to the railway station with easy access to the media capital in London, and within walking and cycling distance of most of the city. This is what cities are for. The idea that we abandon the centre to hen nights and property investors whilst we drive to supermarkets and business parks on the periphery is a recent fad and one that is totally unsustainable.
None of us wants to see the Guildhall fall into the same fate as the Barbican, or St John’s church on Micklegate (now The Parish bar), or to be converted into unaffordable luxury apartments. But if we leave it purely to the market one of these outcomes is what we can expect.
So the Greens are supporting Labour’s plan to convert the Guildhall into a centre for digital media arts companies. I’ve seen the need for a city centre base for creative companies since 2002 when I explored the use of two storeys above a city centre bar for ‘The Creation Network’. Some of those companies have grown in stature since then and it’s thanks to these companies that York is being established as a centre for high-tech industries – being named as the UK’s first UNESCO City of Media Arts. The bid was put together by a network of local companies with Council support. The Guildhall needs restoration and needs new occupiers. It would make a prestigious York address for this new guild of very modern merchants.
Councillor for Fishergate Ward