Guest Post by Lisa@York Stories: Citizen Engagement

Photo credit: York Stories

In her third and final guest post, having looked back to 2006 and looked forward to 2026, Lisa@YorkStories brings the focus to dynamics of decision making in York.

A contribution from Lisa@YorkStories (www.yorkstories.co.uk)

I was invited to write a piece for the My Future York project, and thought that a useful contribution might be to think about the decade just gone, and the changes the city has seen in that time, as another way of thinking about what ten years on might look like. In the earlier part I wrote about the obvious visual changes in the city’s streets and buildings. This piece is more about the changes in ‘citizen engagement’ over the last decade or so, again based on my own observations and experiences. And taking up the question asked by My Future York: what future do we want for York? And adding to that — whose ‘vision’ is going to shape the York of the future? Will you be involved?

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Looking at photos I took in York in 2006 and thinking about the changes in the city in the last ten years (in part 1) has made me think about my own experience, of a developing connection with and understanding of this city, the way it is shaped by planning decisions and other people’s visions, and about my own increasing ‘engagement’ over the years.

Ten years ago I was wandering about getting increasingly concerned about the things I saw happening, such as the sugarbeet factory closure. I knew I couldn’t do anything about that, and suspected I couldn’t have any input into the smaller local things either. But some years later the proposed demolition of a former WW2 service hostel building behind the art gallery provoked a sudden and intense engagement with the planning process, which continued and got deeper and wider over the years in response to plans for King’s Square, and York Central, and several interesting but unlisted buildings, since demolished.

Anger and incomprehension was my reaction after my first attempts at ‘engagement’ with the planning process. Since then I guess I’ve developed a more pragmatic and realistic view of what’s possible. Or maybe I’ve just become more resigned, with age, having seen so many changes in the city, so many buildings lost and streetscapes changed. Maybe that’s the difference ten years makes. But I don’t think it’s just that. I think that a major part of it is reading more, researching more, also watching the council webcasts of meetings, which gives the viewer an opportunity to sympathise more with the fellow humans we know as local councillors as they make decisions on often controversial matters. I think many other residents have yet to find that sympathy, judging by some of the comments about councillors I see online.

Because of the amount of information now available online it is easier than it was to follow what’s happening with planning applications and consultations and various types of ‘citizen engagement’. Still, the planning system through which planning applications are decided remains a mystery to many of us, and the council’s ‘planning access’ online system is frustrating and confusing and often fails to load the relevant documents.

Consultations on larger schemes are becoming more common, but many people still don’t hear about consultations until it’s too late and decisions have already been made. For those who do know and want to comment it can be hard to believe that consultations are genuine and are intended to help shape development.

At least there are now more attempts to consult on important matters, like the access road for the York Central development. I was particularly concerned about the future of the city’s built environment, and that aspect in particular, under the council leadership of James Alexander. It seemed that things not understood were in danger of being swept out of the way because of big ‘visions’ for the city’s future. A memorable low point was seeing a photo of Cllr Alexander in front of the former carriageworks canteen, which he was happy to drive the York Central access road through, because it meant nothing to him.

With that in mind, when I see comments to the effect that we need more leaders with ‘vision’ to shape the city I think about that. Whose visions? What kind of visions? The kind that show no understanding or regard of the complex and deep sense of place felt by the people who have lived here for decades?

So, a few years back we had a council leadership that seemed big on ‘vision’ and wanted to plough through a bridge into York Central regardless of what might be in the way. There seemed to be a simultaneous neglect of basic boring things like drain clearing and street cleaning and supplying of bins. That’s turned around in some ways I think since the current administration took over last year. There seems to be a recognition that the basics matter, and that council tax payers like to see some evidence that our council tax is being spent wisely.

Still, York in 2016 feels like a rather fractured place, with growing resentment about the large student communities and the fact that accommodation is springing up all over for students but not for others who are just as much in need. Many different perspectives about what the city is and what it should be.

Perhaps, in the next ten years, the city will swing back into ‘vision’ mode. I guess it will have to, a bit, to get the York Central project started, and other major sites like the British Sugar site.

I hope that the vision, and the reality, will include and involve everyone, or at least a wider cross-section of the communities that make up this city we call home. The city seems likely to be shaped to fit the needs of the university-educated and relatively wealthy residents. Cities usually are. But perhaps in this age of austerity the divide is becoming clearer, and the danger of exclusion. Already evidence of it. The young, energetic, well-educated and confident residents are claiming spaces and places, setting up the things they feel are missing. The older more settled residents, some of them here for decades, are seeing things claimed, taken away, changed beyond recognition in places. To some residents the city seems like a world of opportunity, a playground for ideas. Others feel a sense of loss and grievance, feel pushed out, powerless.

Having given a personal perspective, in response to the project ‘My Future York’, I’m thinking that perhaps a way in to writing about ‘My Future York’ is to take ourselves out of the picture – remove the ‘My’ and instead think about a Future York better suiting all of us. As it is the city as a whole we’re trying to help with, trying to imagine, and it involves the place working well for everyone who lives here. As Phil Bixby says in ‘Building a city-wide brief‘: ‘it involves altruism – consideration of what we hand on to others’.

Things are going a certain way, towards a city serving the needs of some of its residents — mainly the wealthier ones. How do we make it better reflect all of its residents, and include the needs and wants of those who don’t feel confident enough to put their views across, or don’t know how to?

I used to feel powerless in the face of the changes, in this city I was born in decades ago and have loved since I began to develop a ‘sense of place’. Recently I’ve seen some evidence of a more collaborative approach between decision-makers and other citizens, and I hope that continues to develop, and expand beyond arguing angrily on social media. For that to happen it needs more respect all round – among citizens in terms of how council staff, councillors and other decision-makers are seen, and from those decision-makers in terms of recognising that residents often have a wealth of local knowledge that can be of benefit if brought into the mix in plans for York and its future.

There will always be new residents arriving with energy and vision, and the challenge for the future is how to combine that energy with the wisdom and knowledge already here, to include a respect for heritage — of the built kind and the less tangible understanding of place. Projects like My Future York will I hope help to do this, bridging divides and bringing more of us in to combine our efforts for the sake of this precious place.

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If you’d like to add your own thoughts on York in the future, there’s more info on this page, and you can add your contribution on this link. My own ‘Perfect York, 2026’ is on this link. My Future York has gathered many interesting and thought-provoking perspectives, including contributions from Christopher Styles, Victoria Hoyle, John Cossham, Kit Rafe Heyam, and Helen Graham.

1 thought on “Guest Post by Lisa@York Stories: Citizen Engagement

  1. An interesting and insightful vision of the past, present and future of our wonderful, fascinating and slightly botched-together city. Thank you!

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