Just try to imagine it...

York never went ahead with city-centre pedestrianisation. So the streets are choked with traffic - and there's nowhere for the Great Yorkshire Fringe to set up camp.

We never built the University of York. So we don't have all those new blocks of student flats: but nor do we have Science City, or the spin-off companies, jobs and investment that came with it.

What we do have is a sprawling shopping complex lapping around Clifford's Tower because, in the early 2000s, there was no properly organised opposition to the city council's 'vision' for Coppergate II.

York could have been like this today. Would it have been a better or a worse city than it is?

That depends on your point of view. But it would certainly have been very different.

York Press:

Shoppers on busy, pedestrianised Coney Street. It was the Civic Trust which first pushed for footstreets

One of the organisations that has helped ensure that York didn't turn out this way is the York Civic Trust.

It celebrates its 70th birthday this week - and according to York's Green Lord Mayor Dave Taylor, it has very much been a force for good. That's why he's adopted the organisation as one of his charities of the year.

It is impossible to know what York might have been like today without the Civic Trust, Cllr Taylor admits. It was the Trust which initially fought for the closure of Deangate to traffic and the introduction of pedestrian-only streets. But that might eventually have happened anyway, further down the line.

It was the Trust's academic development committee which laid the foundations for the University of York; what Cllr Taylor calls a 'massively far-sighted achievement'. But we already had York St John - and who knows how that might have developed without rival?

York Press:

Graduation day at the University of York. What would the city have been like without it?

For Cllr Taylor, it was the Trust's resolute opposition to the Coppergate II proposals that persuaded him to become a life member, however.

The Trust's then chairman John Shannon made the organisation's opposition to the proposed £60 million development at the Eye of York absolutely clear in a letter to planners in November 2000 - saying it was too big, the architectural quality too poor and the impact on Clifford's Tower - a 'site of international importance' - potentially devastating. "It should be rejected out of hand," he wrote.

When the application subsequently went to an expensive public inquiry, the Civic Trust coughed up something like £70,000 in barrister's fees to fight its corner. The proposals were subsequently thrown out in 2003 by government planning inspector John Bingham, in language that was reminiscent of that used by John Shannon a few years earlier. The plans, Mr Bingham said, were overly commercial and 'grossly inappropriate' in such a historic area.

York Press:

Lord Mayor Dave Taylor at the opening of this year's Great Yorkshire Fringe

It was the Trust's stance which persuaded Cllr Taylor to become a life member. "It is a vital organisation in a historic city," he says. "It has people who are knowledgeable and able to speak up for the city's heritage and historic environment."

The Trust certainly isn't the first organisation that has been determined to speak up for York's heritage.

As long ago as 1596, the city council led energetic protests against plans to demolish Clifford's Tower. A series of petitions were sent to the Lord Chancellor and Lord Treasurer. One argued that, if the tower were pulled down, York would have 'no other buildinge for showe of this cittye save of but onlye the minster and church steples'. Talk about being far-sighted.

In the 1800s it was the city council or corporation that was the villain. Many other cities were busy demolishing their 'outdated, medieval walls', and York wanted to do the same, arguing the bars were too narrow and the walls were hindering expansion. City officials met with 'fierce and influential opposition', according to the History of York website - including from the artist William Etty - and ultimately backed down.

In the early 1900s, York's heritage was again under threat, this time from roads, trams and overdevelopment. Dr William Evelyn, who had come to York in 1891 as a medical practitioner and fallen in love with the city, used his position as secretary of the Yorkshire Architectural and York Archaeological Society to campaign against what he called 'vandalism' - including the demolition of ancient churches and the widening of roads for electric trams.

York Press:

Dean Eric Milner-White, one of the 'founding fathers' of the Civic Trust

By the mid 1940s, however, four men - two-time Lord Mayor John Bowes Morrell; Oliver Sheldon, the founder of the York Georgian Society; Noel Terry; and Dean of York Eric Milner-White - decided a new organisation was needed to protect the city from the dangers of post-war overdevelopment.

Their idea was for a "voluntary association of the citizens of York... and of others wherever in the world they may dwell who love our historical city, for the purpose of preserving its monuments and treasures and developing its beauties."

The first meeting of York Civic Trust, as the new organisation was called, was held in the Mansion House 70 years ago this week. It was attended by the Archbishop of York Cyril Garbett; the Lord Mayor Fred Gaines; and representatives of many other York organisations.

The horrors of the second world war - and the threat it had posed to York - were still vivid in the minds of everyone there: and they were reflected in a speech the Archbishop gave - a speech recorded faithfully in the York Civic Trust's first annual report.

"The Archbishop said that York had to protect itself against four great enemies," that report said. "The first was time, with its ally the weather... The second enemy was the malice of man... York had suffered the temporary loss of its Guildhall and the destruction of an interesting church (St Martin's in Coney Street) through bombing.

York Press:

The 'malice of man': York Assizes procession in the bombed-out Guildhall in the 1940s

"Thirdly came the greed of man as expressed in commercialism, which destroyed beautiful buildings... The fourth enemy was ignorance: people thought they were improving and restoring when really they were ruining and destroying."

The Civic Trust has been fighting these four enemies for the last 70s years - and the fight remains every bit as vital today as it was then, says current chair Andrew Scott.

York, like cities across the country, faces renewed challenges - from Brexit; from austerity and the aftermath of the recession; from the growing sense of disenfranchisement felt by many ordinary people.

Across the country, the public spending cutbacks resulting from austerity have reduced the capacity of councils to be able to determine and shape their cities' futures, Mr Scott says. So there is more need than ever for groups of ordinary, committed people willing to help them do that.

The York Civic Trust isn't against change, he says - we need to develop and grow as a city, we need to make proper use of key sites such as York Central. But it is about ensuring that York changes for the better, not for the worse.

"For me, the York Civic Trust is all about trying to be the voice of people who care about York," he says. "We can easily take York too much for granted. The Civic Trust is a group of people prepared to recognise that if we take it too much for granted, we could lose what's there. We're trying to be a voice for those who care about that."

  • York Press chief feature writer Stephen Lewis, who wrote this article, is a Trustee of York Civic Trust

York Civic Trust achievements over the past 70 years:

  • Provided the foundations which led to the establishment of the University of York
  • Fought for the first pedestrianised footstreets in the city centre
  • Cared for and found new uses for redundant churches - including St Sampson's, now a centre for older people
  • Restored several fine historic houses, including Fairfax House
  • Installed bronze plaques (now blue plaques) fixed to buildings across the city, which commemorate York's famous sons and daughters, or important events
  • Fought proposals for Coppergate II

York Civic Trust today

York Civic Trust has one full-time staff member (chief executive David Fraser) and two part-time admin staff. Fairfax House has a further two full-time staff and six part-time staff.

The Trust is managed by 15 Trustees and more than 60 active committee members, and has more than 1100 members from all walks of life.

It is involved in a range of activities that affect everyone in the city, including:

  • Keeping a watching eye on planning applications. The Trust operates a 'planning club' - made up of postgraduate university students doing conservation-related masters degrees - which scrutinises new planning applications every week. The Trust's planning committee then makes representations to the city council. The Trust recently also held two 'York Futures' seminars at which it invited people to give their views on the future direction of York and the draft local plan, and subsequently prepared a vision statement for the council.
  • The City Enhancement Fund: a fund which the Trust uses to pump-prime small projects in York, such as the restoration of the Rigg Monument in St Lawrence's Church - a memorial to six children who drowned on the River Ouse in 1830. The Fund is also being used to help the development of a series of small 'pocket parks' in the city centre, such as that which recently opened in the churchyard of All Saints off High Ousegate.
  • Educational activities, including annual school public speaking competitions at The Guildhall and the Merchant Adventurers' Hall for secondary and primary school children respectively.
  • An extensive events programme, which includes everything from walking tours of York and lectures on the city's history and heritage to opportunities to find out more about entries in the York Design Awards BLOB Blue plaques. The Trust continues to install blue plaques on buildings across the city: including most recently to the composer and folk music collector George Butterworth (at the Mount School) and St Stephen's Orphanage (at 89 The Mount).

To find out more about York Civic Trust, or become a member, visit yorkcivictrust.co.uk/