50 years ago today, the Government appointed Lord Esher to study how best to preserve the historic centre of York. His work over the following years and his landmark report have shaped the city we know today.

As welcomes go, it was hardly the warmest. When Lionel Gordon Baliol Brett, the fourth Viscount Esher, arrived in York in 1966, he was smuggled into the Guildhall and given a brisk lesson in Yorkshire etiquette.

"I was told by Mr Burke (railwayman and leader of the Labour group), in his solid Yorkshire drawl, 'we don't like consultants here'," he wrote in his autobiography, Our Selves Unknown (1985). "The Conservative boss was, if anything, even more unfriendly."

Their curmudgeonly greeting was not necessarily inspired by the man, but by his mission.

Esher, an architect and Eton-educated peer, had been commissioned by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government to undertake a study on preserving the centre of York.

"After some arguments with local authorities, not all of whom wished to be Whitehall guinea pigs, I was offered the choice of Chester, Bath and York," he wrote.

"York, I was told, would be the most worthwhile, but difficult, as York City Council was hostile."

Undaunted, he set up an office in Micklegate and got to work. Before long, the broad themes of his report began to emerge.

He identified the need to bring people back into the city centre, emphasising the importance of pedestrianisation and the exclusion of all through-traffic, and of retaining the human scale of the city.

York Press:

St Sampson's Square in the 1960s

His aim was to make York a museum and conference centre while retaining its position as a thriving shopping destination.

Esher's ideas soon began winning him valuable allies. Among them the then Archbishop of York, Dr Donald Coggan, the Evening Press and John Shannon, chairman of York Civic Trust, who he described as "a passionate lover of the walled city and a splendid speaker".

When his report finally emerged in 1968, it began with a tribute to the council and voluntary conservation bodies for maintaining York's ancient buildings, but said all would be in vain if the city's traffic problem was not taken firmly in hand.

York Press: 1960s

He recommended that Bootham Bar be closed to traffic, access to Micklegate Bar restricted to private cars and only residents' cars, clearly labelled, be allowed through Walmgate and Monk Bars.

Esher also suggested the construction of four multi-storey car parks in Skeldergate, Merchantgate, Gillygate and Monkgate.

As for the Minster, he believed it should be surrounded by paved areas, lawns and trees so as to restore to the area "a precinctual sense of quiet and space worthy of the magnificence of the buildings".

York Press:

Monk Bar in 1965

There was a shortage of money at the time, so some of his ideas were not implemented until long after the publication of his report in 1968.

For example, his suggestion that the Aldwark-Bedern area of the city be cleared to make way for houses was not carried out until the mid-80s.

Some of his ideas were, of course, not implemented at all.

He proposed a fly-over car park above Piccadilly, which never happened.

There was opposition to Lord Esher at the Coppergate inquiry early in this century, during which his report was cited as an integral part of the case for large-scale development of the area around Clifford's Tower.

Esher claimed the whole Castle Precinct "breathes the atmosphere of planning blight and indecision". When it came to the 2002 Coppergate inquiry, however, decisiveness ruled and the redevelopment scheme was thrown out.

Conservation views and ideas have obviously changed over the years, most feel now that only some of Esher's recommendations were suitable. 

But his overall vision is highly respected.

York Press:

A 1964 view of York

Peter Brown, of York Civic Trust, speaking in 2004, upon Lord Esher's death, Mr Brown said: "The view we have always taken is that his proposals were a package deal," he said. "You could move elements around, emphasising this and diminishing that, but you had to accept it as a whole for it to really work.

"You have to understand that he wasn't just trying to change the city, he was trying to change hearts and minds."

One of Esher's lesser-known proposals was to bring students from the then fledgling university into the city by offering them housing in Micklegate. He believed this would have a positive, maturing effect.

"It was a shame the city didn't follow this plan," said Mr Brown. "But at the time the council did not have a very expansive attitude towards the university. They regarded it as more of a nuisance than an asset.

"Bringing students into the city adds a certain liveliness and intellectual maturity to the area. Something I'm sure the Micklegate Run could have benefited from."

York Press:

Lord Esher outside York Minster in 1990

Without the Esher report, York would not be the same city as it is today. Just one of his guiding principles, that nothing should be built higher than the clerestory of the Minster, has insured that it remains a resolutely low-rise city.

But his report is now 50 years old and other ideas have come and gone. 

Most recently, Professor Alan Simpson's New City Beautiful report in 2010 set out a huge range of ideas and suggestions for how York should develop over the first half of this century - although little has been done in relation to that report since.

The city council is still currently awaiting sign-off on its own Local Plan, which sets out how it feels the city should develop.

Viscount Esher, who died in 2004, nine days short of his 91st birthday, returned to York on numerous occasions after 1968 to see how his blueprint was being put into practice, and to continue his impassioned campaign for the area around the Minster to be transformed into a green, leafy, traffic-free zone.

At a Mansion House dinner to mark the 20th anniversary of his report, John Shannon, who was still chairman of the Civic Trust, presented him with a souvenir plate and the city's thanks.

Because of the Esher report, he said, the people of York could walk the streets to their full stature, undiminished by the buildings, and free to enjoy the history and culture around them.

"Let us not forget," he added, "that the report was basically about human dignity. It was about people."

  • The majority of this article was written by Jo Haywood and was first published in July 2004, upon the death of Lord Esher, aged 90