The Guildhall has been the symbolic heart of local democracy in York for centuries. Could that be about to change – and would it matter if it did? STEPHEN LEWIS reports.
KING Richard III has not had a very good press. He has been widely presented as a crook-backed, scheming villain who murdered his nephews – the ‘Princes in the Tower’ – in order to seize the throne.
In York, however, he is remembered more fondly and nowhere more so than at the Guildhall. There is a plaque there to the “most famous prince of blessed memory”, which extols his “great labour, good and benevolent lordship for the honour of this City”.
According to Visit York’s Richard III trail, one of the king’s favourite places to stay when he came to the city was the old Augustinian Friary, which lay along the River Ouse between Lendal and the Guildhall. And he is thought to have been entertained to a banquet in the Guildhall itself some time in 1483.
That is not the only time the Guildhall has played an important part in the history of York. It was here that Margaret Clitherow was tried in 1586; and it was here that, in 1647 – at the height of the Civil War – the Parliamentarians agreed to pay a ransom of £200,000 to the Scots in exchange for handing over Charles I.
The most significant role of the building down the centuries, however, has been as the symbolic heart of local democracy in York.
The Guildhall was built in the mid 1440s by the city corporation and by the Guild of St Christopher and St George, and a council meeting is recorded as having been held there as early as May, 1459: more than 550 years ago. The whole building was officially taken over by the city corporation in 1549 and council meetings are held there to this day.
Its position at the heart of local decision-making could be about to change, however.
At the moment, as well as housing council meetings, the medieval building and the warren of Victorian offices that are connected to it are home to City of York Council’s chief executive and her support staff, as well as to the political parties whose members sit on the council.
With work on the authority’s new £43.8 million HQ at West Offices nearing completion, the ruling Labour group is keen for all council staff and elected members to move out of the building altogether, to the new headquarters.
The vast majority of council committee meetings and working groups would also be held at West Offices, leaving a rump of only six – largely ceremonial – full council meetings being held every year at the ancient and traditional heart of local government in York.
Labour argues that the move makes sense in many ways. Others, however, view the prospect of the city council abandoning its ancient home with dismay.
This evening, the ruling Cabinet’s proposal for the authority to effectively move out of the building is being called in for discussion by the council’s cross-party scrutiny management committee, which meets in… the Guildhall.
Here, we look at the case for and against the move…
• The proposal to move council staff and political, parties out of The Guildhall will be debated at a council scrutiny management committee at The Guildhall this evening at 5pm.
A key argument given for moving out of the Guildhall is that it is just too expensive to maintain as the council’s operational headquarters.
A report to the authority’s Cabinet earlier this month revealed the Guildhall complex would need £800,000 spending on it over the next three to five years – with a similar amount being spent every five years after that. In the current economic climate, that is money the authority can ill afford.
The wish to move goes beyond the need to save money, however. Coun Julie Gunnell, the authority’s cabinet member for corporate services, points out that the new West Offices offer a real opportunity to move all council staff and departments together into one building – with properly equipped, modern offices that will allow council staff to do their jobs as effectively as possible.
Yes, when the council first began to talk about moving to a new headquarters a few years ago, the original plan had been to keep the chief executive and some senior staff at the Guildhall, Coun Gunnell admits.
But that was in the days when the new HQ was going to be at Hungate. West Offices are bigger and it makes sense to have everyone in one place.
The council would not be severing its links completely with The Guildhall, Coun Gunnell stresses. “We would still be looking to use the council chamber.” But by removing most council business, the ancient building and complex would be freed up so that it could be looked after better – and made better use of.
It might, for example, be possible to make the Guildhall more, not less, accessible to members of the public, Coun Gunnell said. “It is a fantastic building, but how many people, York residents or tourists, ever go there?”
Roger Ranson, the city council’s assistant director for economic development and partnerships, echoes that view. It may be the heart of local government in York, but public access to the building and the complex is fairly restricted.
So how might that change if the council moved out?
A local firm of architects, Purcell, Miller Tritton, has been commissioned to write a report looking at the heritage significance of the building. The report – which cost £13,485, although only £3,485 of that came from the council – has yet to be published, so no options for future use of The Guildhall and its attached buildings have yet been finalised, Mr Ranson says.
But the authority will not be simply “flogging it (the Guildhall) to the highest bidder,” Mr Ranson. It would hold discussions with responsible organisations such as the Civic Trust and the York Conservation Trust about how best to use the Guildhall in the future.
It might be possible to open it up to public access more and perhaps even to demolish some of the architecturally unimportant annexe buildings (not the medieval Guildhall itself, or the Victorian council chamber) so as to allow for a walkway down to the river. The reminder of the Guildhall might then be able to be used as serviced office space for creative businesses – perhaps along the lines of Woodend in Scarborough, which houses a range of creative/design/photographic and artistic enterprises.
“But it is not about losing the Guildhall,” Mr Ranson said. “It is about finding the most appropriate way forward in terms of its stewardship and custodianship.”
John Galvin, the Conservative councillor who chairs the scrutiny management committee which has called in the proposals on the future of the Guildhall for further discussion, says he is appalled at the thought of the council abandoning its historic home.
Yes, he says, there would still be six full council meetings held in the Victorian council chamber each year.
“But it would still cease to be the centre of city governance. Six meetings a year would work out at about 22 or 24 hours of council work a year, at maximum, said Coun Galvin.
“If that is called keeping the seat of governance at the Guildhall, that really is clutching at straws.”
He believes that if the council did move out, it wouldn’t be long before someone started asking whether it was worth going back to the Guildhall for just those six meetings a year, and that ultimately the council would abandon the Guildhall altogether.
He accepts that the Guildhall would be preserved and maintained as a fine building even if its links with local government were severed. But the Guildhall has been at the centre of local democracy in York for the best part of 600 years.
“And in my humble opinion that historic connection is as important as maintaining the building,” he says.
He points to the example of the Minster: another ancient building which in many ways is not ideally designed for use in the 21st century.
“What would happen if the Church of England said we’re not going to have services at The Minster any more?”
Yes, he says, the Guildhall needs some investment: and yes, times are tough. But the £800,000 needed is comparatively small change. And there is no reason why the council couldn’t continue to use the complex for meetings, and maintain a small staff presence there, while at the same time letting out some of the extra office space to the kind of creative businesses envisaged by Mr Ranson.
The council should be able to use the Guildhall complex in that way to generate revenue, which could be used to repay money borrowed for refurbishment, he says. These are options that at least need to be looked at.
Peter Brown, director of the York Civic Trust, agrees that the Guildhall’s role as the home of local democracy in York shouldn’t be abandoned too easily.
Yes, there is a large amount of 19th and 20th century office space there that could be adapted for other purposes, he says, but the building’s importance as the seat of local democracy in York should not be lost.
He does not believe that holding six council meetings there each year would be enough to maintain that historic role in any meaningful way.
“This is a matter of concern, and the current proposals seem to us a step too far: especially when we’re talking about York’s 800th anniversary.
“We discount our links to history at our peril.”
Organisers of an online petition to ‘Save the Guildhall’ agree.
“We the undersigned petition the council to ensure that the Guildhall… continue(s) to be at the heart of civic and cultural activities in the city… that no attempt be made to downgrade the role…and that any proposals to change the ownership or lease arrangements… be subject to full public consultation,” the petition reads.
WHILE the Guildhall’s role as the seat of local government in York goes back centuries, the council hasn’t always met there.
For many years, the council chamber was housed next to the chapel on the old Ouse Bridge – with the city jail below.
The bridge was demolished in 1810 and the present Victorian council chamber at the Guildhall was completed only in 1891.
During the war, the Guildhall was badly damaged by bombs in the so-called Baedeker Raid of 1942.
Luckily, the medieval stone shell of the building was able to be largely restored. It was 18 years, however, before the building was officially re-opened by Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother in June, 1960.
One of the features of the restored Guildhall is a stunning, modern stained glass window, depicting characters and scenes from the history of York. It was designed and painted by the renowned York stained glass expert HW Harvey.