IF you've ventured into the centre of York in the last few days, you'll have seen the elegant new street furniture in St Helen's Square.

It is fair to say that when they first appeared this week, the huge black blocks - and one long slab - that suddenly appeared prompted equal amounts of shock and bewilderment.

"York council has erected an abomination in St Helen's Square just a day after putting up the Christmas tree," wrote one man who contacted The Press. "What is it for? I don't ever remember St Helen's Square flooding."

He wasn't alone in being mystified. A woman caller who contacted The Press said she had been standing in St Helen's Square as the blocks were being installed.

"About ten people walked past while I was standing there and they were saying 'What are these? What are these? Why didn't we know about this?" she said.

York Press:

Not flood defences: the barriers in St Helen's Square

Gradually it has dawned on people that no, these aren't flood defences. They've been put in place as anti-terrorism measures over the busy Christmas period.

And to be fair to the city council, it did actually put out several statements in the weeks and months leading up to the installation to explain that there would be extra counter-terrorism measures installed over the Christmas period. The authority even consulted about this, says the council's deputy leader and lead on transport issues, Cllr Andy D'Agorne.

Reading an article about increased counter-terrorism measures in The Press and seeing the reality are clearly two different things, however.

"Lockdown!" screeched the headline on one local news website when the barriers appeared, adding: "York has always been hot on security - see that huge stone wall that surrounds the city - but this takes it to the next level."

That's putting it mildly.

The first thing to say about the new barriers, however, is that they are temporary. They will remain in place throughout the festive season to protect the large crowds of people who will be attending the Christmas fair and other events, a council spokesman said.

The St Helen's Square blocks, which are 'nationally approved' counter-terrorism barriers, the council says, are part of a much wider spread of counter-terrorism measures that have appeared in the city centre - including, most famously, the stone blocks in front of York Minster.

York Press:

Protection: the barriers in St Helen's Square

Some - such as the sliding bollards at the bottom of Parliament Street - are permanent. Others, such as the barriers in St Helen's Square, are temporary. The plan is that, by next Christmas, the ugly temporary barriers will have been replaced by permanent, and less obtrusive, barriers that will enable the entire city centre area to be sealed off to traffic if necessary - making it impossible for terrorists to drive vehicles at high speed into densely-packed crowds

And before you jump in to point out that delivery vehicles can come all the way up Coney Street at certain hours... well, the city council is on to that.

"Footstreet hours - when vehicles are not allowed except in emergencies and when the barriers will be staffed - have been extended to cover all the times when the city centre is at its business: 10am-6pm Sunday to Wednesday and 10am-8pm Thursday to Saturday," said James Gilchrist, the council's assistant director for transport, highways and environment.

Some still query how effective the barriers are - why are all the blocks on just one side of St Helen's Square, for example?

The council says it was advised by counter-terrorism officers on the placing of barriers. "They are there to protect the entire city centre and not just their immediate vicinity," said Mr Gilchrist.

Taking it on trust then that they hopefully amount to an effective protection against terrorism, are they not hopelessly over the top? York, after all, has thankfully never been subjected to a terrorist attack.

"We're all in favour of being kept safe," said the woman caller who contacted The Press. "But we don't want that to be at the expense of inhibiting out right to go about our daily business. We don't want the whole character of our city changed because of some threat that has not ever been explained. It seems over the top."

York Press:

OTT? The new security barriers

Some of those who contacted The Press shared this view.

"What a shock seeing anti-terrorist barriers surrounding our York streets," wrote Phil Shepherdson in a letter that appeared on our letters page. "Why, when allegedly we have been downgraded to a safer level?"

There's nothing 'alleged' about that, Phil. The UK's security level has indeed now been downgraded, to 'substantial'.

But Detective Superintendent Matthew Davison, regional coordinator of the counter-terrorism police's 'protect and prepare' programme, said: "The substantial threat level still means an attack (somewhere in the UK) is likely. We can't afford to be complacent."

Former West Yorkshire Police chief constable Allan Charlesworth, now retired and living near York, agrees. We have been lucky in York that we haven't had a Manchester Arena bombing or a London Bridge-style attack, he says. But that doesn't mean the terrorists might not decide to target us in future.

There have been plenty of terrible incidents, both in the UK and around the world. One things terrorists like to do is attack crowded places he said. "It is worth taking some measures to stop them, to keep the violence away."

Another of the methods terrorists like to use is fear, he added. They may have no intention of launching an attack. "But they want to frighten people into keeping away from city centres, because that disrupts life and damages the economy." A measured response that makes people feel more secure when they come into town is a price worth paying, he said.

Andrew Morrison, the chief executive of York Civic Trust, said it was sad that counter-terrorism measures were needed in the heart of York in 2019.

"But we must remember that there is good precedence for such defensive measures: most noticeably the city walls of which we are now so proud, but also the flood banks - the barriers that protect our homes," he said.

York Press:

Ancient defences: York's city walls

The bulky bollards and rising barriers that had appeared on Spurriergate, St Helen’s Square and Parliament Street were 'unsightly and unsympathetic', he said.

"But the Trust supports the principle of needing to protect the people of York and those who come to visit the city. Having contacted City of York Council officials with our concerns, they have given assurances that these measures are only temporary and specific to the protection of those enjoying the Christmas Fayre, therefore set to be gone by January 2020."

The Trust would be ready to work with the council and other organisations on the design and placement of more permanent counter-terrorism measures in the future, he added.

So who knows, perhaps 100 years from now, the people of York will be as proud of their 'historic' counter-terrorism defences as we are, today, of the city walls.

Or perhaps not. But for now, it does seem to be the price we are being asked to pay to stay safe.


One woman who contacted The Press pointed out that the new barriers in St Helens Square would be a magnet for drunken louts looking for an excuse to misbehave. What was to stop drunks jumping from barrier to barrier for a laugh, and possibly hurting themselves? And wouldn't other drunks use them to urinate against, she asked?

We put these points to the city council. There would be an increased security presence in the city centre over the Christmas period, in the form of police, BID Rangers and seasonal security staff, said the authority's assistant director for transport and the environment James Gilchrist. "Anyone abusing the barriers will find their activities very short-lived."

Press letter writer Ray Price argued that there was far more risk of people being crushed in the crowds at the Christmas Market than of a terrorist attack. He claimed the security barriers, by restricting access, only increased the risk of crushing or fire.

Mr Gilchrist said visitors were encouraged to visit the Christmas fair at different times, when it was less busy. But he added: "Make It York and partners have robust procedures in place to monitor the size of the crowd, and to manage flow if necessary."