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Introducing: a Fairer Future for York

Insights on the first Fairer Future for York event and the collaborative report we hope will inspire others to join this vital conversation.

Written by:
Dr. Owen Powell
Date published:
Reading time:
7 minutes

York has a long and rich history. It boasts an impressive offering of culture, heritage, and hospitality as well as a high quality of life for many of its residents. However, its wealth, resources, and quality of life are not shared equally by all and if things continue as they are, this gap is only going to widen. Yet it’s not impossible to change course, set our collective sights on something better, a Fairer Future for York.

Originally conceived as a small-scale event to learn lessons from other local authorities as well as co-operative and alternative economy experts, the Fairer Future for York project snowballed into a somewhat bigger event with a much broader focus. 

Through conversations with JRF’s Emerging Futures Team, local councillors and council officers, as well as external collaborators, it became clear that to really grasp what a fairer future might look like, a more holistic approach would be needed. On 31 January 2024, the first Fairer Future for York event brought together 24 co-operative development experts, strategic stakeholders, councillors, and grassroots community organisers from York and around the country.

This blog offers an overview of the first event. You can also download the full report.

3 key themes were set out to shape our thinking, planning, and discussion:

  • health and social care
  • housing and land
  • local economy and community wealth building.

Across these themes, a set of avenues for enquiry were also developed. We considered the role of co-operatives and other social enterprises in generating and retaining wealth, potential social investment models, options and opportunities for more community-owned and controlled assets. 

We also explored how policy and practice needs to change to support community wealth building, ensuring a fairer future for York is also a fairer future for the planet and the environment. We questioned how we can safeguard and nurture a resilient community-led economy, one that is sufficiently robust to weather any storms to come.

The event

The Fairer Futures in-person workshop opened with an ice-breaker exercise that encouraged participants to consider their ‘ambitions’, within their work or lives, for a fairer future. We then encouraged them to consider the ‘blockers’ that prevent them from being made a reality. 

Following a presentation from City of York Council officers, supported by an excellent ‘Snapshot of York in 2024’ briefing which is included in this report, the main workshop activities for the day focused on imagining a fairer future for York, and then realising a fairer future for York. Details of these workshops and resources used are included in the main report.

In imagining a fairer future, 5 areas emerged as common threads to the participants’ visions: housing, community, economy, energy, and transport. Cutting through these areas was the recognition that community ownership, and therefore some degree of community control and oversight, was vital to realising a fairer future for York. Ideas included:

  • new models of co-operative housing on land held by community land trusts
  • community resilience hubs, a fairer future learning academy
  • localised revenue retention schemes
  • York’s own Eden Project
  • York becoming a port once more with boats and barges moving goods and people in and out of the city.
  • a new industrial revolution through sustainability
  • connecting it all together, community-owned renewable energy and transport networks of buses, trams, and road and river taxis.

In realising a fairer future, participants focused on one particular key theme to really get to grips with what it would take to make progress toward a fairer future in 1 year, 3-5 years, and 10 years.

Workshop participants used their findings to create this 10-year plan of what they would like to see achieved:

Health and social care

  • In 1 year, build a community and replace misery with pride and wellbeing.
  • In 3-5 years, establish a care co-op that empowers service users and provides good-quality work for carers.
  • In 10 years, York is “a disabled valhalla”, a wonderful vision for the future even if getting there feels exceedingly complex and difficult.

Housing and land

  • In 1 year, learn from others in Europe and beyond to understand their seemingly fairer systems, structures, and mechanisms.
  • In 3-5 years, introduce rent control measures and lobby for public land to be transferred to community land trusts, enabling affordable housing to be built that will stay affordable and community-owned in the long-term.
  • In 10 years, new legislation along with societal change, disrupting the habitual drive towards home-ownership, while recognising the importance of housing security.

Local economy and community wealth building

  • In 1 year, scoping and mapping of the economy and assets, set targets of doubling in 3- years and quadrupling in 10 years.
  • In 3-5 years, embedded use of social value policy to challenge the dominance and financial power of the private sector, prioritising support for social enterprises and community groups so they are able to take ownership and control of assets.
  • In 10 years, a rebalancing of assets within the community, locking land, buildings and other assets, in community ownership to create baked-in community wealth.

Key ideas that emerged from the day

A truly community-owned space

Whether through buying an existing asset or building something new, a fully, in perpetuity, community-owned and controlled space in the centre of York would make a real difference to the current landscape of community wealth in the city. It’s not simply a ‘buy the land, problem solved’ situation but the existence of such a space seems to be a key ingredient to fostering and demonstrating a fairer future.

A public transport renaissance

One of the more surprising findings from the day, given the areas of focus, was the call for a new approach to public transport across York, both for getting around the city centre and for bringing people and goods into and out of the city. Ideas were plentiful, including greener modes of public transport, using the rivers for taxis and goods, and a community-owned tram network.

Raising a community wealth fund

While profits are being made by some individuals and businesses in York, there is a feeling that these rewards are not being shared by the wider community. Likewise, the demographics of York present a challenge to the capacity of the council to generate revenue from council tax. There was a clear appetite for developing mechanisms for progressive localised taxation, following cities including Manchester, Edinburgh, Barcelona, and Amsterdam. Participants noted the importance of taking a balanced view, acknowledging that York’s tourism creates jobs, trade for local businesses, and contributes to York’s cultural vibrancy.

‘The Room’

How do we create more spaces that enable more residents of York from all walks of life to engage in thoughtful debate and creative, imaginative conversations about a fairer future for the city? What would it take to create the conditions to bring busy councillors, parents, front-line workers, students and others to engage in conversations about poverty, ecology, and environmentally sustainable models for change? ‘The Room’ is a call to create virtual and in-person spaces for having these conversations. If we are to build a people’s assembly, holding these spaces for continued meeting and learning would be a good place to start.

Moving forward

To drive these initiatives forward, participants identified the need for further public engagement. This could involve:

  • developing empowered, community-led groups around specific themes and projects
  • nurturing and sustaining relationships with a diverse range of stakeholders including residents, community groups, City of York Council and other organisations and businesses in York
  • creating learning opportunities and shared resources for use both locally, and by others interested in building their own fairer futures.

We find ourselves in a unique moment where actual and potential political change in York, the wider region, and nationally, offers opportunities for new, radical, system-wide rethinking and renewal. City of York Council is in ‘listening mode’, there is a combination of political will and enthusiasm, but moving forward sooner rather than later is essential. This is a moment where the uptake of social value metrics, alternative civic infrastructure models, and community wealth building strategies can play a key role, actively supporting a more cost effective, community-led, sustainable, fairer future for York. It is imperative that we make this the vital issue amongst the many others on the great ‘to do list’. We must ask ourselves:

‘If we did nothing, where would we be in 10 years?’

‘If we did everything, where would we be in 10 years?’

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About the author

Dr Owen Powell is a Lecturer in Human Resource Management at York St John University, and a former Research Associate at Birmingham Business School and the Institute of Local Government Studies, University of Birmingham.

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