Head to the Eye of York tomorrow, and you'll be able to join a 'bold new approach' to planning the future of the run-down Castle Piccadilly area. STEPHEN LEWIS reports

I'M standing in the Castle car park when Helen Graham puts the killer question. "What's your impression of this place?" she asks.

Well, where do you start? "It's a mess," I say. "It's ugly, it ruins the setting of Clifford's Tower, and as for the Foss - what a waste of a river." The car park isn't even a good car park, I point out. The spaces are too small, the concrete surfaces are all broken and potholed. It looks like a temporary car park that has long outstayed its welcome...

Helen jots down a few notes, then asks a follow-up question. "Try to imagine what it could be like," she says. "If you were to come back in ten years time... what would you like to see here?"

My mind starts to whirl with possibilities. "A park," I say. "Somewhere green, with some benches, some trees, perhaps a small performance area. Oh, and a new footbridge over the Foss."

York Press:

UGLY MESS: Helen Graham and Phil Bixby in the Castle car park

Welcome to consultation, 2017-style. The city council is beginning the process of putting together a 'masterplan' for the Castle Gateway area of York, the historic quarter of the city on both banks of the Foss that includes Clifford's Tower and the Eye of York, Piccadilly, the Foss basin, St George's Fields and Tower Gardens, as well as Fossgate and Walmgate.

It is an area of the city that has for far too long been run-down and neglected. The council is determined that attempts to improve the area should, as far as possible, be co-ordinated rather than done piecemeal. And it is asking the people of York for their views on they way they'd like to see the area develop.

Not another consultation, you groan. We keep having them - and nobody ever listens.

Well, suspend your cynicism for a moment. Because this one just might be different. The council has brought in a local group called My Future York to run the consultation process. Headed by architect Phil Bixby and by Helen Graham, an associate professor of critical heritage studies at the University of Leeds, this is a group dedicated to finding new and better ways of consulting with the public. And the consultation process they've come up with for the Castle Gateway is certainly different.

York Press:

Phil Bixby and Helen Graham at the Eye of York

For a start, they're not asking people for their views on a series of options already drawn up by council planners. That traditional form of consultation is far too restrictive, says Helen. "It doesn't give people the chance to set the agenda."

Instead, they're inviting people to take part in a series of public walks, talks and events - and asking them to think big about how they'd like to see the area change. "We want people to get past the 'they'll never allow that, and this won't be possible'," says Phil. "We want people to tell us what they would really like to see here."

Tomorrow (Saturday), every half hour between 10.30 and 2.30pm, a series of guided walks will be leaving from the Eye of York. The walks will be led by volunteers from an organisation called York Coaching who are trained in breaking down barriers and opening up conversations.

The walks will take in the whole of the Castle Gateway area, stopping at key points such as the Castle car park, Tower Gardens, St George's Fields, the Blue bridge, the Foss Basin and Piccadilly. And at each point, those taking part in the walk will be asked a series of open-ended questions: questions like those Helen Graham asked me in the Castle car park. What is your impression of this place now? What would you like to be able to do here ten years from now?

York Press:

The approach to Tower Gardens

Everyone taking part in the walks will have been issued with a clipboard containing a series of post-it notes, one for each stopping-point on the walk. They will be asked to jot down their thoughts at each point on the post-it notes - and at the end of the walk, the notes will be collected up and fed into the consultation process.

It is a genuine attempt to get people thinking and talking and contributing their ideas, says Helen. And it is designed to try to overcome the cynicism that greets so many efforts at consultation.

It is vital to get that input, if the Castle Gateway project is to deliver something that the people of York really want, Helen says. "Places are made by the people who live here, who work here, who want to do things here," she says.

Don't worry if you haven't booked up for one of tomorrow's walks. Just turn up at the Eye of York between 10.30am and 2.30pm and you can be assigned to one, Helen says. And if you can't make tomorrow - well, the walks will be repeated next Saturday.

There will be a host of other events, too. The My Future York team have already met with cyclists, and members of York's youth council. There has been a photographic tour of the Castle Gateway area in collaboration with York Past and Present, and next Wednesday there will be a 'Walking the Foss' session, in which people will be encouraged to think about how we can make better use of York's second river.

Next Saturday, at the York Castle Museum, there will be a 'stories of change' day, looking at how the castle area of the city used to be, and how it could be different in the future. And there are also plans for nighttime walks around the area. "It is very different after dark," says Phil Bixby. "So we'll be looking at things like lighting and safety."

Those who prefer social media can contribute their thoughts via Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. And they can also check out the MyCastleGateway Flickr site, where photos of all the comments and post-it notes gathered during the consultation process are being collected and organised into themes.

All of this is just the first phase of a three-stage process which the council hopes will result in a Castle Gateway quarter the people of York can be really proud of.

The second phase will involve community groups and local people working together to bring some cohesion to the mass of conflicting ideas generated in the first, information-gathering phase. This will then help to inform a masterplan for the area.

In phase three, local residents and community groups will be kept involved and asked for their input during the actual implementation of the development.

That's the theory, anyway.

But how much notice will the council really take of the ideas that local people come up with?

The council's press release describes this as a 'bold new approach to public engagement'. And council leader Cllr David Carr says the authority is committed to making it work.

York Press:

COMMITTED: Cllr David Carr

"We wanted to do something new," he says. "We wanted to learn from previous experience and make this a really inclusive process of consultation where people can get really engaged."

And would the council take on board what people have to say?

"Absolutely. This is such an important part of the city. We want to encourage a wide range of opinion, then try to weave it all together into a piece of urban renaissance."

And can he guarantee that there will be no attempt to force through an utterly inappropriate scheme? One such as the disastrous £60million Coppergate Riverside, for example, which was backed by the council through an expensive public inquiry, only for a government planning inspector to reject the scheme in 2003 and tell the council, humiliatingly, that the proposals were 'totally unacceptable in the context of the historic setting'?

"We have got to pay more attention to public spaces and to people's opinions," Cllr Carr says. "We have got to make sure we have a city that works for everybody, not just for commercial activities but for everybody."

Only time will tell whether the Castle Gateway can deliver that. But if you think it should, a good start would be to get along to the Eye of York tomorrow...


To find out more about the Castle Gateway consultation process, visit mycastlegateway.org/

You can join in the discussion on social media at:

  • Twitter - @mycastlgateway (note spelling, no 'e' in 'castle')
  • Instagram - @mycastlegateway (normal spelling)
  • Facebook - facebook.com/mycastlegateway (normal spelling)

You can check out the My Castle Gateway Flickr site at flickr.com/photos/149815510@N05/albums


The aim of the consultation over the Castle Gateway is to ensure there's a single 'vision' for the redevelopment of the area, rather than it all being developed piecemeal.

Sadly, the process will not be able to affect one important development - the English Heritage proposals for a visitor centre at Clifford's Tower itself.

Those plans have already been approved - so won't be part of the scope of this consultation.