FIFTY years ago today, the first details emerged of a report which would change the face of York. DAVID FRASER, chief executive of the York Civic Trust, explains the impact of the Esher Report

Fifty years ago today, on February 14, 1969, the first details emerged of a long-awaited report on the future of town planning in York. It was big news - so big, in fact, that the Northern Echo broke the official embargo and pipped The Press to the news-stands.

That in itself caused quite a storm. When he officially presented the report to the city council on February 17, Cllr Samuel Brearley was forced to apologise for the 'sordid episode' which had seen details of the report leaked to a newspaper. And later still, it caused further ructions. The report's author, Lord Esher, refused to serve on the city's newly-created conservation area committee. One reason he gave was the premature 'leaking' of his report to the press.

All this over a planning report. But then this was no ordinary planning report.

The Esher Report had been several years in the making and was eagerly awaited. When it was finally published in full, it was hotly debated. And it changed the face of York for ever.

York in the 1960s would be recognisable to us today, but very different.

About 3,500 people lived actually inside the city walls - roughly half the number that do so today. Well-established businesses employed about 7,500 office workers in York - with the biggest employer in the city centre being British Rail.

But around the edges of the city centre there were 230,000 square metres of industrial works and warehousing. Some of this was noisy, smelly and smoky, much of it attracted heavy traffic, and much of it was located next to the rivers - once important routeways which had been superseded by the roads.

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Aldwark in March 1974: a 'derelict hinterland', according to Lord Esher. Photo: Explore York Libraries and Archives

Shops then, as now, were concentrated mainly in Coney Street, Stonegate, Daveygate, Parliament Street, and Piccadilly. But they were very different to the mix of shops, salons and coffee bars of today.

Then as now, the city was thought to be congested and traffic-ridden. But large parts of it were also poor and run down: dull, drab and unattractive.

Central government was interested in doing something about this. The Minister of Housing and Local Government (first Richard Crossman and then Antony Greenwood) recognised that an historic city like York deserved better. And local government was also interested: Labour and Conservative politicians on York City Council were united in wanting to making York a better place.

The Esher Report was commissioned, along with similar reports on three other historic towns - Chichester, Chester and Bath.

The first policy objective was to keep the shops and offices so busy that the commercial heart of the city could compete with Leeds and other cities. But this would be useless without making the centre an attractive place to live for all, including families and students, which in turn meant progressively removing smelly industries from within the walled city.

All these objectives were based on a recognition that the old streets and buildings of York were an asset which should be treasured and conserved. New development was to be encouraged in the right place, so long as it was of the highest architectural standard and worthy of becoming the heritage of tomorrow.

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Lord Esher at the opening of Bretgate in 1981. Photo: David Foster/ York Housing Association

The Esher Report - officially entitled 'York: A Study in Conservation' - was explicit in recognising York’s heritage was its strongest weapon in the quest for economic advancement.

The report itself was a beautiful document, illustrated with well-crafted maps and with a wealth of photographs and pencil drawings.

It contained over eighty detailed recommendations, which between them would help to transform the face of York.

Not all have been fulfilled - but those which have have made an enormous difference.

They include:

  • the closure of Deansgate to traffic;
  • the construction of multi-storied carparks;
  • the comprehensive re-development of the industrial slums of Aldwark (which Lord Esher described as a 'derelict hinterland')
  • the development of Bretgate in Walmgate

Other recommendations - such as the removal of the car park at the foot of Clifford’s Tower and the recognition of the area as a powerful public space - have yet to be carried out, though with the Castle Gateway proposals now being finalised there is the prospect that this will at last happen.

Esher also recommended 'a percentage charge on hotel bills' to pay the additional costs of conservation. The idea of a tourist tax is still a hot topic today.

One of Esher's recommendations, that there should be a specific limit on the height of new buildings so that York Minster remains the dominant building in York's 'townscape', has succeeded so far, although it is under constant challenge.

The Esher Report was far from perfect. There were three major areas in which it was not strong enough.

Today, it seems shocking that the archaeology of the city was ignored. It would take decades, following the arrival of Peter Addyman, the outstanding work of the York Archaeological Trust, the excavation of Coppergate, and the opening of Jorvik, before the inestimable value (both economic and cultural) of our buried heritage would be recognised.

The Report also failed to take lessons from international comparisons, or even other historic towns in England.

And finally, perhaps the error which dogs us most to this day, the Report failed to emphasise strongly enough the unpopular fact that the development and protection of a historic city absolutely requires the recruitment of a large number of experienced and professional conservation staff.

Nevertheless, the Report was a rallying cry which recognised that much good was already happening in York and which gave the developing conservation movement a solid platform on which to build. It became a symbol and a tool.

Even though the Esher Report has been perhaps more referenced than read, it has united the city and prevented the worst excesses of heritage destruction. With its emphasis on the positive economic value of conservation, it has served the city well.

But York in the 2020s is a far different city to York in the 1960s.

Is it perhaps time to repeat the process? Do we need a new version of the Esher Report setting out a a new vision of our city better suited to the times we now find ourselves in? Some would say it is long overdue...


Every report is the product of individual people, and the Esher Report was no different.

Lord Esher himself was Lionel Gordon Baliol Brett, the fourth Viscount Esher, a patrician and aristocratic member of the establishment.

After Eton and Oxford University he served as an officer in the war. But he was also a qualified and competent professional in architecture and urban design. Although less involved in the detail, he saw the big picture and helped to shape the report as an effective tool for conservation.

For decades afterwards, he visited the city and his firm Brett and Pollen appointed Harry Teggin, an architect from a Scottish landed family. Where Esher shaped the report, Teggin crafted it in detail and precision.

But the Report owed even more to the involvement of the people of York itself. The team was supported hugely by staff from the city council. Chief officers, including TC Benfield and Richard Bellhouse, lent their support, but there was one officer who went the extra mile. Town Planner and visionary conservationist June Hargreaves was the crucial point of contact between the Esher team and the council. Nearly seventy years later she continues to serve the city as a member of the Civic Trust’s Planning Committee. Author of the seminal 1964 publication “Historic Buildings: Problems of their Preservation” and later appointed MBE for her work, June had a role in the restoration and conservation of over six hundred buildings in the city centre, including Bedern Hall and the Civic Trust’s own Fairfax House.

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June Hargreaves. Photo: York Civic Trust

The political leaders of York also supported the Report. Much as they resented the imposition of advice from the deep south of England, they were united in their backing for Esher's ideas. A Labour council under railwayman William Burke commissioned the Report, and a Conservative council under building contractor Samuel Brearley gave it many hours of consideration and received it with tempered enthusiasm.

The biggest local supporter of the Esher Report, however, was York Civic Trust under its Chairman John Shannon.

A local solicitor, Shannon took the helm at the Trust in 1963 and would serve as Chairman for 38 years. He was adamant and unstinting in his quest to attract the attention of central government and lobbied furiously in Westminster and York for the appointment of Esher.

The Civic Trust contributed half of the fees paid to Esher by the council (a considerable sum); and for decades afterwards, Esher was invited by John Shannon to lend support to significant campaigns and events.

His support was joyous and uncritical: in Shannon’s words, it was “as if Esher had shown [the people of York] the new Jerusalem; they were given a glimpse of how this lovely city could be saved for themselves and future generations to live in and enjoy”.