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 (

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?

– – –

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.

– – –

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.

Guest Post by Lisa@YorkStories: ‘My perfect York’

2026: ‘At West Offices there’s a drop-in centre where residents can get details of planning applications and comment on them or discuss them with other residents and local councillors. The old ‘us and them’ attitude has gone, after more residents began to engage with the planning process and put pressure on the authorities to make changes in the way plans were presented.’

In the second of our guest posts by Lisa@yorkstories, she outlines her perfect 2026 York as a contribution to our Day In My Life 2026 project.

Contributed by Lisa@yorkstories

An imaginary walk/cycle ride through York in 2026 … a utopian vision of how I’d like my side of town to be.

. . . . .

On Burton Stone Lane there’s an entrance to the football and rugby ground, on what used to be the MoD land of Lumley Barracks. The plans for a new ‘community stadium’ at Monks Cross were eventually abandoned after growing ludicrously bloated and unworkable, and a way was found to keep the football club at Bootham Crescent. The MoD land became available, and in a sudden surprise move the massively profitable housebuilder Persimmon decided to be philanthropic in the city where its business had begun, and instead of building houses on the Bootham Crescent ground, as had been the plan, it bought the whole site, and the MoD land, and donated it to the people of the city.

The new stadium has the necessary upgrade in facilities, and is also used by the rugby club. It’s still in the heart of the community, in the same place now for almost 100 years. Both York City FC and York City Knights are now doing well, with larger attendances.

Bootham Park hospital has reopened, and the forbidding ‘no unauthorised persons’ signs around the site have been removed. The double gates to Bridge Lane have been repaired and are now open, allowing cyclists to access the site more easily without the danger of colliding with pedestrians. The former ‘gala field’ is used for community events and the green space is better appreciated and cared for.

The journey from this part of York to the station has been made much easier since the construction of a new more accessible bridge alongside the old Scarborough Bridge, on the Clifton side. It curves across the river, set higher than the riverside paths so that it’s still accessible in times of flood. The floods are less dramatic these days, as there has been more work upstream to manage the flow before it reaches York.

The new curvy bridge over the river takes us into York Central. It’s possible to walk or cycle right through the middle of this area, to reach Holgate Road and Water End. It’s still a work in progress, but parts of it have been built. The tallest buildings, a mix of offices and residential blocks, are carefully sited so as not to block light from the rest of the site. Here, open parkland areas have been created and planted with trees – proper woodland trees like beech, oak and horse chestnut.

A strip of land planted with meadow flowers has extended from the original wildflower meadow around the Holgate arch right along the edge of the site, a river of flowers leading to the carriageworks canteen building.

The canteen was saved and has a new use as a community centre and business start-up space. On its walls are massive images of the carriageworks site in the past, and its workers, including those iconic images of all the bikes streaming out into the Holgate Road traffic. A ‘borrow a bike’ scheme based here pays homage to that memory. Outside and through the wildflower areas are information boards giving a history of the site and what was built here, with a plan of where all the rail workshops were when the site was at its peak. The ‘pride’ we talked about so much in the mid-1990s when the carriageworks closed has eventually been revived, thirty years later, through a thoughtful reuse of the site and its surviving buildings.

The new and old sit more happily together now. There’s not that conflict there used to be between those who want ‘progress’ and those who used to be labelled ‘the heritage brigade’. More people have come to have a wider and deeper appreciation of this city’s heritage and also of their own, and how the two fit together, and there’s a recognition that intelligent development (‘progress’) means working with what’s there, building on that.

Alongside the excitement of all things new and innovative there’s a growing recognition of the fact that it’s fairly easy to start things but much harder to keep them going, how much work and commitment it takes. A while back it was all about innovators and innovating. Now the focus is on maintainers, maintaining. In line with that, a new shopping area behind the station on the York Central development has been massively popular, featuring only those businesses with an established local presence dating from the 1980s or earlier. Many businesses ended up moving out of the walled city, as bars and restaurants moved in. York Central has its own fairly new ‘high street’, with a branch of Barnitts in the middle of it.

Heading back towards the city centre we pass the retained and improved Railway Institute buildings near the station, and pedestrians and those on two wheels can pass through the quiet arches under Queen Street bridge, taking the line the trains used to take, in the mid-19th century, right up to West Offices, the station at that time.

At West Offices there’s a drop-in centre where residents can get details of planning applications and comment on them or discuss them with other residents and local councillors. The old ‘us and them’ attitude has gone, after more residents began to engage with the planning process and put pressure on the authorities to make changes in the way plans were presented. An improved online system has meant greater participation and understanding, and the Residents Planning Centre here at West Offices is usually lively and buzzing, with a good atmosphere, and occasional laughter even.

Leaving West Offices we can then walk along the city walls. Though many changes were proposed to the moats and mounds around the walls most of these weren’t put in place as residents campaigned to preserve the existing views. These have been enhanced by further planting of wildflowers right around the walls. The buzzing of bees can be heard as we pause to admire the view towards the Minster, which looks much the same as it did ten years ago, and a century ago.

Over the other side of Lendal Bridge the library and city archives continue to provide a valuable and well-used service.

If we walk past there, out of the city centre, up Gillygate and Clarence Street and onto Haxby Road, we find that an offshoot of the library and archives has recently opened in the newly refurbished Joseph Rowntree Memorial Library, alongside the Nestle South development. Lights are on in the old Rowntree factory building. People are living in there now.

Behind it there’s a new cycle track heading off towards Bootham Stray, which is still open land there for us, as it always was. Or we can cross the road and go past the allotments, towards Clifton Backies, then onto Kingsway, where the green space between the houses is also full of flowers, and bees buzzing. There are benches made by local residents, which are never vandalised, and there’s no litter on the ground, here or anywhere.