Contributed by Christian Vassie
It must be ten years now since I left York and went to live in a sustainable city and I realise that I have forgotten how tiring and depressing it was to live in a place that refused to join the 21st century. It is 2026. I have grandchildren now and we are coming to York for the day to see how people used to live. Being a passive house, our home costs only £40 a year to heat, and that heat comes from the district heating network that is linked to the incinerator. Half the homes in the city are heated from rubbish. It’s brilliant. I remember dreaming that one day York would be like this; cycle paths and tramways linking all corners of the city and its villages, electric cars, properly insulated homes for all, fuel poverty a thing of the past, secure underground cycle parks, buses running on biogas, a city protected against flooding, renewable energy installed across the city, district heating … Apparently everyone preferred coughing in the pollution, admiring the gridlocked ring of cars around the city walls, shivering in single-glazed historic splendour, and traipsing through annual floods like Vikings; it’s what made York special everyone told me. It still does because York hasn’t changed a thing in 2026.
Anyway, our current passive house in our sustainable city (well away from York) is programmed to wake up a 6.45am. It’s a smart house. First the rooms are heated (it doesn’t take much), then the insulated kettle boils, using solar energy stored in the main battery. The water stays at near boiling point for hours, that way we can make toast and everything else we want to do when we get up, without overdrawing on the battery. Through the day our smart house does everything that needs doing in order – washing clothes then dishes then heating the water and so on – as soon as the power has built up from the solar PV. No waste,
Once the kids have eaten I bundle them in the electric car and take them to the tram stop for the start of our big day out. No need for big car parks anymore, the car takes itself home. I’ll call the car from the tram when we’re on our way home later and it will come and meet us at the tram stop.
In our new city they converted all the car parks to vertical greenhouses, to grow vegetables within the city, taking filtered grey water recycled from the roads. It cuts down on food miles: tomatoes, turnips, peppers, salad, radishes, even bananas and ginger are all grown in the city. In the UK! Oh, yes, that’s another thing we do, at the city hall they get all their hot water from the pipes that are laid beneath the roads outside the building. The sun heats the road, the road heats the pipes – it’s not rocket salad … but you know all that already, it’s what you do in your city too.
I digress, I was meant to be telling you about my trip to York – the city that never changes. Our tram stops just outside the station and we catch the high speed electric train to York; 300 miles and fifty years back in time in just over an hour! Amazing. Against expectations, the new generation of nuclear power stations have proved very effective. (The Tokamak reactors have finally passed all the tests so nuclear fusion is set to
get the go ahead this autumn … At last! ;-). The children have been making fun of me for weeks. They simply don’t believe a word I tell them about York. One of the hardest things has been persuading them to carry gas masks and high vis jackets. When the ticket collector arrives in our train compartment, they tell him
where we’re going and he confesses that he comes from York. So they start asking him questions but it turns out he’s rather embarrassed and doesn’t want to talk. He checks with me that I know what I am letting myself in for, then wanders off up the train shaking his head. We arrive in York bang on time. As we step onto the platform the children’s eyes are big as Yorkshire puddings. Zethan immediately starts coughing and I remind them to put their gas masks on.
None of us has smelled diesel fumes for years; the children have never smelled them. And we’re still in the station! I’m wondering if it fake smoke, to get us in the mood. York has always been famous for its museums, and rightly so, but now in 2026 it has become a museum itself. The whole city. I remember going to Beamish a long time ago to see how the Victorians lived, and now people come to York to experience life in the Elizabethan age. Elizabeth the Second obviously. You can spot the tourists, we’re all wearing face masks or gas masks. As we step out of the station the stink takes your breath away. There’s a long line of taxis, all with their engines running and belching out diesel fumes, just like I remember it. The taxis are like a row of
Roman soldiers carrying burning torches, blocking our way into the city. Axana asks me if they’re real. I assure that they are but she wants to touch one to make sure. She leaps back laughing when she feels the engine shaking beneath the bonnet.
‘What’s that cloud of smoke coming out of the back? Is it like with dragons in the olden
times?’ she asks.
‘Yeah, just like dragons,’ I answer.
A large sign advertises trips to an authentic village experience.
Step into the Past
The Way we Were!
‘That’s where you lived, isn’t it, granddad?’ Zethan asks. ‘Let’s go there.’
I hesitate. We only have eight hours and it is nearly eight miles. The taxi driver assures me that it will be fine so we climb aboard. The taxi smells as bad inside as it does outside and I instruct the children to keep their gas masks on, much to the driver’s amusement. It’s not just diesel fumes, it is clear that the driver is a smoker, something else the children have never witnessed.
We come out from under the station arch and are immediately stuck in a line of taxis, lorries, and other vehicles, just like I remember it a decade ago and for 30 years before that. It must take ten minutes just to do a little loop around a group of six parked cars. The road in front of the station is awash with dirty buses, vans, and huge wheeled cars that were designed to climb up mountains in the snow but became insanely fashionable in cities like York, even though they cost twice as much in fuel and couldn’t fit in the thousands of parking spaces that covered the city, and probably still do.
I don’t remember seeing the pollution when I lived here back in 2010 but I do now, a yellow fog hanging in the air, thick as custard. I am half-expecting to see residents wandering about with mobile phones powered by combustion engines instead of batteries, with the exhaust pipes emerging from under their armpits.
When I was a child they spent their whole time cleaning the Minster, going from one end to the other and then starting all over again, scrubbing the pollution away and replacing the stones that had been eroded by acid rain. I don’t think I ever saw the whole building without scaffolding up somewhere. In most cities all that is just a distant memory, but not in York. As we join the stationary traffic, the taxi driver turns and hands me a copy of the York Press, telling me it will take a while to get across the city and I might like to catch up with the news.
‘Are we there yet?’ asks Axana.
I shake my head. ‘Why don’t you play a game?’ I suggest.
Zethan has found an App about living in a scarily cold house. I leave them to it.
I look at the newspaper. News? It’s like stepping into a time capsule.
‘Latest plans unworkable say councillors’ reads the headline on the front page, alongside a
photo of a bunch of angry men in grey suits and ties, crouching in front of a pothole. (see
page 4 for full story)
The strange thing is that potholes don’t exist anywhere outside the UK and even in the UK they are only found in cities like York. In the rest of the world they long ago switched to rubberised surfaces that dramatically reduced the amount of money it cost to repair the road. The rubber surface prevents ice from getting in to cause damage. Keeps the road quieter too. Been around for 30 years. But not here. Except in York, there are very few private cars on the road in 2026 and the cars, all electric, that do exist are lighter and designed for only one or two people. And in any event most people use trams or bikes to get around. It’s how modern
cities are designed: bikes and pedestrians first, trams second, buses thirds, cars last. I can’t remember when I last saw a row of large lorries nose to tail inside a city.
Still that’s why we’ve come to York; to see how people used to live in the olden days. On page 4, the three angry men in grey suits are having an argument about potholes. One says his party wants to spend more money on fixing them. Another wants to spend even more money on fixing them. And the last one wants to talk about pollution, which makes the other two men very angry. I wonder whether there are women councillors and whether they get as angry about potholes.
‘We cannot abandon cars in favour of unproven new-fangled technologies that will not
work,’ says Councillor Brassneck.
‘It is simply intolerable that they want to spend money on youth centres instead of
investing in our road infrastructure,’ says Cllr. Meek.
The Press quotes a resident who points out that trams and bicycles have existed over 150
‘The survey clearly showed that most York residents do not trust them,’ responds Cllr
Beneath the pothole article in the paper is a smaller one revealing that next week is the 80th anniversary of the last time the city had an agreed Local Plan.
‘Have they really still not agreed a plan?’ I ask the taxi driver.
‘You know how it is, Love,’ she says. ‘The Tories blame Labour, Labour blame the Lib Dems, the Lib Dems blame the Greens, the Green blame the Tories. There is good news though. I’ve been told our city councillors have all agreed to celebrate the centenary of not having a strategic plan. They’re calling it KEEP YORK SPECIAL DAY.
I’ve almost lost the will to live by the time we reach Fishergate. It’s been nose to tail all
the way, people driving vehicles that have been banned across most of the world. It’s a bit
like those old photos you see of Cuba when Castro was alive, with cars that were sixty years
old and held together with bits of string.
‘There’s a minibar if you’re hungry,’ says the taxi driver. ‘Parkin biscuits baked in an
authentic oil burning stove. I’m Caroline by the way. Are you from York?’
‘From Wheldrake,’ I answer. ‘Many years ago. I can’t believe that nothing’s changed.’
‘That’s York for you.’
‘Granddad, it says here that crossing York today takes twice as long as it did 120 years
ago,’ Zethan says, pulling my sleeve.
‘Only twice as long? Are you sure?’
It takes just over two hours to reach Wheldrake. Caroline tells me that when the houses
started being sold at Germany Beck in Fulford they had an extra 1000 cars on the road every
morning. Slapping a road on the Ings didn’t help exactly, she confesses. What with climate
change getting worse every year. The road floods twice a year and only way in and out of
York to the south is blocked for at least three weeks every winter.
‘Why didn’t they build a tram?’ I ask. ‘Everywhere else has them. They opened one in
Dijon, one of York’s twin cities, nearly twenty years ago. Their tram network was carrying
50,000 a day with months of its being launched. York could have had a line from Wheldrake
through to Haxby, via Germany Beck, and the university all the way up past the station and
on through York Central to the north of the city. And another one from east to west.’
Caroline laughs. ‘You’re joking, aren’t you? Cars are part of our heritage,’ she says. ‘Can
you imagine anything as ugly as a tram going along main street in Fulford? It would ruin the
look of the village, destroy its character.’
‘What village? What about the ten thousands of cars that jam up Main Street for hours a
‘They’re what makes us special.’
‘They’re what makes you a laughing stock,’ I said. ‘and lead to half of you going to
hospital with respiratory diseases.’
‘That’s all hearsay. Besides look at all the tourists we have. Oh, by the way, have you seen
they took those houses down and rebuilt the old petrol station. Lovely, isn’t it?’
I get Caroline to wait for us in the car park at the WHELDRAKE the WAY we WERE Museum, just to make sure we can actually get back to the station before dark. The kids are entranced. They have never seen a village without wind turbines, where every street is blocked with parked cars and where every third house has an oil tank outside.
‘But why would they do that?’ they keep asking me. ‘It doesn’t make sense.’
The tour guide, Mr Smirthwaite, explains that the huge clouds of smoke on the horizon are
no longer coming from the ring of power stations that used to be to the south of the village.
With a distant look in his eye he reels off the names of his favourite coal-fired power stations
as if reciting the names of lovers: Ferrybridge, Drax, Eggborough …
‘They all shut down years ago, sadly, but the village were determined to keep the visual
amenity they had provided, Smirthwaite tells us. ‘We missed the view so the village applied
for funding to have giant video screen erected along the southern boundary of the village, to
show the cooling towers as they used to look. The smoke pouring into the sky is actually
steam generated behind the giant screens, with a bit of soot added for effect. Anyroad, we do
still use all our own oil.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘We bought shares in an oil field in Libya when the price of oil collapsed in 2023,’ he
explains. ‘Most of us didn’t want owt to do with renewables. We prefer the old ways. We
have a tanker come from Tripoli every six months. The oil is brought to us from Hull in these
heritage oil delivery lorries you can see.’
‘But it must cost a fortune just to deliver it.’
‘Aye, there’s some say that, but at least we don’t have to put up with those whirling
eyesores in the fields or those ugly blue panels stuck on roofs. You won’t find a wind turbine
‘But you’ve got four rusting oil delivery lorries stinking to high heaven in front of the
church, in the middle of the village!’
‘They’re part of the character of the village, son. Like the telephone kiosk.’
‘Which is being used as a petrol pump.’
‘Times change,’ says Mr Smirthwaite says proudly. ‘Times change.’