Fifty years ago, the Queen signed into law an act which transformed the way historic cities like York protected their heritage. One of the key measures of the 1967 Civic Amenities Act was the idea of 'conservation areas' - which had been the brainchild of a young York town planner. STEPHEN LEWIS reports

IN 1964, a young town planner working for York City Council wrote a booklet that was to have a profound impact on York and other historic towns and cities across the country.

The town planner in question was June Hargreaves. She was 27, and had arrived in York from her native West Yorkshire a couple of years earlier, drawn by the city's wealth of historic buildings.

But she soon became appalled at how many of those buildings were in danger of being lost.

It was the mid-1960s, and many councils were obsessed with the idea of sweeping away the old and replacing it with the new.

"Too many local planning authorities look upon historic buildings as unfortunate obstacles in the way of mammoth redevelopment schemes," June wrote in her 1964 book, Historic Buildings: Problems Of Their Preservation.

York Press:

June Hargreaves today

Her book summarised the problem neatly. "Local planning authorities ... are currently preparing or being presented with redevelopment schemes which will determine the pattern of their town for the next fifty years," she wrote. "They must decide whether it is to retain its personality and identity, or whether it is to become a... town where everything ... is conveniently streamlined and ultra-functional."

The choice facing planning authorities and developers was between convenience and character, in other words. June left no doubt where her sympathies lay. "A town is a place to live in, and all town planning solutions are wrong that sacrifice a town in attempting to solve its traffic problem," she wrote.

The problem was that unless a building was formally listed, it was difficult to protect it.

"At that time, the law relating to non-listed buildings was very poor," June said, in an interview given to her friend Anne Ellison as part of a York Civic Trust oral history project in 2012.

"It was possible to demolish a non-listed building without any consent from the local authority. Yet ... those buildings often formed a very important part of the overall townscape. To lose one ... was rather like losing a tooth. It would stand out."

In her book, she proposed a simple solution: the creation of what she called 'special preservation areas' in which all buildings would be preserved. "No building within an 'area of special preservation' should be demolished or altered in such a way as to materially detract from the contribution it makes to the group value of the street," she wrote.

It was a simple enough concept - one which put the emphasis on an area as a whole, rather than on the individual buildings which made it up. And remarkably, the government of the day took notice.

When, 50 years ago this summer, the Civic Amenities Act 1967 received royal assent, it included a clause which stipulated the creation of Conservation Areas - June's 'areas of special preservation' by another name.

Those Conservation Areas had an enormous impact. Not only York, but countless other towns and cities across the country, would be utterly different today but for their existence.

York Press:

York's historic core, now a conservation area thanks to June Hargreaves

A few years later June was awarded the MBE for 'services to Conservation'.

And quite right too, says David Fraser, chief executive of the York Civic Trust of which, after her retirement from the council, June was a long-standing member.

"It seems impossible to conceive of a time when the historic character of English street scenes had no protection in law," Mr Fraser says. "June Hargreaves was the single most influential voice in England calling for the creation of Conservation Areas.

"At a time when women were not regarded as equals in the workplace, she marshalled the arguments; expressed them eloquently in her seminal publication; and personally convinced senior civil servants and government ministers to change the law. June Hargreaves is a giant amongst conservationists.”

Ironically, York wasn't the first city to get a Conservation Area, despite the part June had played in developing the concept. "There were so many other historic towns who were saying 'can we do this?'", says June, who still lives quietly in a flat off Heslington Road.

"We were actually the second. Stamford in Lincolnshire was the first - although we were the first city!"

FACTFILE: June Hargreaves

June Hargreaves grew up in the mill village of Cowling, in what was then the West Riding but is today part of North Yorkshire. Her father was a poultry farmer.

Born in 1937, she went to the village school, and then to Keighley Girls Grammar School, where she became interested in history and geography.

She went into the Sixth Form, and while there, a job came up for a trainee planning assistant in the Skipton office of the West Riding County Council. She applied, and got the job.

She worked for the West Riding for several years, based in the Skipton office - earning her town planning qualifications in the process - then in December 1961 came to York as a planning officer. "I chose York because I was interested in history," she says.

She was with the council for 26 years, until she had to take early retirement in 1988 on health grounds.

And while she herself rates coming up with the idea for conservation areas as her biggest achievement, David Fraser of York Civic Trust says her contribution to York went far beyond that.

She helped to save some hugely important buildings in central York, he says - among them Bedern Hall, Fairfax House and the observatory in Museum Gardens - and also oversaw the development of the York Town Scheme, which grant-aided repairs to buildings in the historic centre of York.

"This ran for over 25 years and was responsible for saving many listed buildings which were in a semi-derelict condition from falling into terminal decay," says Cllr Ian Gillies, the city council's executive member for transport and planning.

In 2015, at the annual meeting of York Civic Trust, June was presented with the first-ever Lord Mayor's Award in honour of her contribution to preserving the city. Cllr Gillies, who was Lord Mayor at the time, made the presentation.

York Press:

Ian Gillies, left, and Dick Reid presenting June Hargreaves with the Lord Mayor's Award in 2015

It is for conservation areas that June will be best remembered nationally.

But here are some of her other key achievements in York:

The York Town Scheme

This was a partnership scheme, set up in 1966 in collaboration with central government, which aimed to grant-aid repairs to buildings in the historic centre of York. Under the scheme, the city council provided a quarter of the cost of repairs, the government provided a further quarter, and the building's owner provided the remainder.

The scheme was slow to take off, but eventually ran for 25 years, and became a huge success. "By 1987, one of my colleagues worked out that we had assisted in the repair of over 650 buildings," she says.


In 1948, the Adshead Report recommended that buildings along one side of Gillygate be demolished so the city walls could be seen. Nothing happened, but publication of the report resulted in what June calls 'planning blight'. Buildings became impossible to sell: nobody would buy them, knowing that sooner or later they would be pulled down.

York Press:

Gillygate in the 1940s

Predictably, buildings began to get dilapidated. In 1974, June was involved in helping to set up a separate town scheme for Gillygate, to grant-fund the restoration of buildings along the entire street.

It worked, surprisingly quickly. "Within probably two or three years the street was beginning to come back to life," says June.

The Esher Report

York was one of four cities chosen to work with Lord Esher. Participation in the Esher Report promised considerable sums of Government money to invest in redevelopment. Alhough not all the proposals of the 1967 Esher report were adopted, many were - including the wholesale redevelopment of Aldwark.

This was an inner city area that had fallen into a 'dreadful state', June says. "There were buildings on St Andrewgate with sycamore trees growing out of the roofs. The whole of the Aldwark area was as bad as that."

Ultimately, the city council secured £500,000 of Government money towards the regeneration of Aldwark as a residential area.

York Press:

Aldwark in 1974 (above) was a derelict hinterland, said Lord Esher

Bedern Hall

The hall - once home, in medieval times, to the Vicars Choral of York Minster - was in a dreadful state in the early 1970s. It was almost completely enclosed by Wright's pork butcher's shop and factory, June recalls. She was worried that if demolition contractors came in to clear away Wright's as part of the wider Aldwark clearance, they might knock down Bedern Hall without ever realising it was there. June managed to have it scheduled as an Ancient Monument, ensuring its survival.

The York Observatory, Museum Gardens

Built in 1827, and used to house a magnificent Cooke telescope, by the early 1960s the observatory was neglected and overgrown. "When I first knew that observatory one couldn't see it, it was just surrounded by shrubs," June told Anne Ellison. She remembers someone coming to see her to ask if it could be turned into an ice-cream kiosk. "I ... said 'No, it was far too important for that'". Eventually the Yorkshire Philosophical Society, supported by York Civic Trust, raised money to restore the observatory.

The Yorkshire Club, Lendal bridge

In the late 1960s, a proposal was put forward to demolish the building and replace it with an ultra-modern glass-and-concrete construction. The building wasn't listed at the time, although it is now. The developer came to see June, and she told them that they could apply for planning permission, but that she wouldn't support the proposal. They applied, the scheme was refused, they appealed, and June worked throughout a Bank Holiday weekend on a document explaining the reasons given for refusal. When she returned to work after the Bank Holiday, she found that the appeal had been withdrawn.


A conservation area is defined as 'an area of notable environmental or historical interest or importance which is protected by law against undesirable changes.'

There are now more than 8,000 in England alone, says Historic England. They are designated, usually by the local council, for their special architectural and historic interest. And once an area has been designated, no building within the area can be demolished without permission from the council.

As of the end of 2014, there were 35 conservation areas in York. They include York's 'central historic core', Clifton, Acomb, Heworth, New Walk/Terry Avenue and many more.

For a full list of York conservation areas, visit