The Guildhall: histories and futures

‘The Guildhall should be the centre of ‘York’s Story’ […] a chance to see democracy and engage with it’.

‘I also think that improved public access could act as a catalyst that might improve public engagement with the council and local politics. There’s something to be said for seeing the place where the council meets and decisions are made’.
(Quotes from the Guildhall Tours survey)

One of the My Future York project partners is York Past and Present, whose adminstrators Lianne Brigham and Richard Brigham have, over the past three years, shepherded the facebook group to an ever growing membership (14,800 at the last count) and to becoming a dynamic face-to-face community with coffee morning meet ups, Christmas parties and projects in collaboration with local heritage organisations (York Chocolate Story; Mansion House; York Explore Archives).

Lianne Brigham shares the history of the Council Chamber as part of the Guildhall Tour, Residents’ Weekend 2017.

Since 4th October 2014 York Past and Present (YP&P) have been running volunteer-led tours behind the scenes of the Guildhall, including during two Residents’ Weekends (2016 and 2017). In this time they have introduced 2000 people to the Guildhall and its history. As part of their partnership with the Guildhall, they have also been active in the Mansion House Heritage Lottery Fund project, with YP&P members volunteering to pack up and photograph the house before the renovations began. The Guildhall tours have now come to an end in advance of the proposed changes to the Guildhall. Through our research collaboration, YP&P, we decided to take the opportunity of the final Residents’ Weekend to interview and survey those that took part. We wanted to evaluate the tours as well as to understand better the meaning of the Guildhall to people who live in York and what they would like to see in terms of its future development. Overall 61 surveys were returned – in person and online – which represents close to 25% of those attending that weekend.

Read the full report. Look at the raw data from the surveys.

Key findings:

Question 1: What did you enjoy about the Guildhall tour?
The tours were well received, particularly the feeling of getting to look ‘behind the scenes’. The way the tours were done – by an enthusiastic volunteer – was also noted as important. The idea that tours might continue in the future either by YP&P or by others was suggested.

Question 2: Why is the Guildhall important to you? / Why is the Guildhall important to York?
The sense of the Guildhall as being a key in the development of York was foreground by all respondents. A phrase used over 25 times was ‘Part of York’s History/ Heritage’. This was directly linked to the development of civic engagement and local democracy. Yet there was also a strong connection made between history of York, the history the development of Guilds and the development of local democracy. This was seen as a crucial ‘York story’ that could be told through the Guildhall.

‘The Guildhall is a real treasure of York, and should be seen by as many people as possible. It would also help if the local community could learn how local authorities operate on behalf of the community’.

Question 3: What would you like to see for the future of the Guildhall?

There was a consensus that the building needed to be maintained, pay for itself in some way but also still be publically accessible.

Some – responding to the current plans – explicitly mentioned their support for the historic fabric to remain intact (a reference to the proposed new doorway in the main hall). A number of people noted the importance of economic viability. There seemed very little concern about the proposed extensions and restaurants in the wider complex. However, support for the proposed extensions and commercial additions was related to continuing public access to the Guildhall and Council Chamber, with a clear interest expressed in the shared civic story with the Mansion House. The argument for future public access was very often made on the basis of its civic and democratic significance.

‘I also think that improved public access could act as a catalyst that might improve public engagement with the council and local politics. There’s something to be said for seeing the place where the council meets and decisions are made’.

There was a strong sense of the importance of this story for people who live in York. There was also a desire to share this with visitors.

‘It is a magnificent building and one that should be showcased to the 1000’s of visitors York gets every year’.


Create one ticketed entrance to Mansion House which includes the Guildhall and Council Chamber for visitors to the city. This should include free access to people who live in York, as is already planned by the Mansion House.

• Build on the living traditions of the Guildhall – as the Chamber still used for Council meetings – to create a hub for wider public democratic engagement in current issues facing York. The aim of this might be to use a variety of creative methods to enable more people to feel confident in participating in local democratic processes (from voting to ward committees to planning process) and well as enabling wider civic engagement.
• Use the idea of local democracy as a living tradition to develop a visitor experience for Mansion House / Guildhall which engages this city’s visitors with the links between York’s past, presents and future. For example, temporary displays could look at a specific issue (flooding; housing; Castle Gateway) and explore the histories of the issue and open up questions about how the city should handle the issue in the future. This could be in the vein of ‘Urban Lab’ experiments developed elsewhere. Strategically this would ensure a tourist experience to York which is far from ‘in aspic’ but actively deploys connections between the city’s past and future. Such an approach could act as a bridge between the city’s strengths in both heritage and media arts and between the city’s cultural entrepreneurs, its students and long standing local communities.

This report will be shared with relevant City of York Councillors and Council officers – but we see it as a working document so if you have any further comments on the tours or on the Guildhall, add a comment to drop us a line.