Stonebow House – reflections on April event and next steps

We’re just now in the process of pulling together our next Stonebow event, which will be on 26th July, 1-4pm, Central Methodist Church, St Saviourgate. In advance of that, here is a full account of our first meeting written by Martin Bashforth. If you were there and would like to also share your take on the meeting – please comment below or write to

One of the public stalls run outside of Heron Foods in advance of The Stonebow Inquiry on 12th April 2014

One of the public stalls run outside of Heron Foods in advance of The Stonebow Inquiry on 12th April 2014

Stonebow Inquiry: Past, Present, Future Event 12 April 2014
Martin Bashforth
[The report that follows is subject to the disclaimer that it does not represent meeting minutes and is only one person’s view of what happened and an honest attempt to capture what was heard as best can be made sense out of notes taken. Any apparent missing elements or misrepresentations are unintentional.]

The event took place at the Central Methodist Church Hall directly opposite Stonebow House, which was the subject of the ‘inquiry’. It followed a series of drop-in sessions at the city library over several weeks, and direct discussions with customers of the Jorvik Cafe at Stonebow House and with users of the two evening entertainment venues, Fibbers and the Duchess, as well as a considerable effort at networking with people interested in a personal or professional capacity. Although there was no official presence from the City Council, on the grounds that the phrase ‘Stonebow Inquiry’ sounded too legalistic, the sessions were attended by one Labour and two Green Party councillors in their personal capacity.

There were five displays on tables and walls: a selection of ‘blue plaques’ to commemorate people and cultural memories of the area around Stonebow House; a display of photographs old and new of the area by ‘York Past and Present’; a display of old maps and material from the 1911 census to portray the past communities in and around the area; a display of alternative and eco-friendly architectural solutions to the ‘problem’ posed by the brutalist architecture of the building; a table of questions and invited answers posing the political issues involved. There were also specially produced ‘menus’ on display in the neighbouring Jorvik Cafe, which also supplied refreshments for the day.

There were two discussions in circles: about 25 people attended the one in the morning and 20 in the one in the afternoon, with some overlap of people. As well as the councillors and the meeting organisers, those attending included a planner from Leeds, a resident from the adjacent almshouses at Lady Hewley’s Buildings, a variety of academics and students, people with a personal interest in the building (including at least one actual leaseholder), members of local history groups including York’s Alternative History and York Past and Present. A number of existing or former bodies turned up: the chairman of York Civic Trust, ex-members of the Hungate Community Trust who had been involved in the adjacent area development process until 2006, representatives of Planning Consultative bodies and the River Foss Society. There were also a number of people with strong views either for or against retention of the existing building, as well as those simply curious.

Some fairly typical comments were that Stonebow House was an eyesore, a disgrace to the rest of York, a source of noise, dirt and social nuisance, as well as soulless. Others were equally adamant that many of these issues could be addressed, either through imaginative architectural renovation and regeneration, through technical and community solutions to the associated nuisances, and that the building retained considerable value to its present day users. Those with knowledge of the political and planning realities tended to advise that there was unlikely to be any attempt to destroy the building, at least unless there was huge potential for a developer to extract maximum profit from any redevelopment of the site – which would rule out replacement by an area of quiet, park-like recreation, or something which opened up wide vistas and viewpoints. Many of those who favoured retention of the building referred to its value for the less well-off, with a relatively cheap supermarket and a cafe that acted as a social gathering point that was not too gentrified, as well as the site of two major fringe entertainment venues. As one visitor summed it up, “what people do, how people interact, was more important than the building as such.” Another suggested that “it doesn’t have to be pretty to be useful.”

Concerns were expressed as to the uncertainties created around Stonebow House itself and as to the likely physical outcomes of redevelopment of the associated Hungate area. The latter, on the other side of the road from Stonebow House itself, had been an area of largely 19th century working class housing, shops, workshops and factories demolished principally during the 1930s and the subject of redevelopment plans that fell mostly into abeyance around 2006 and as a result of the recent recession. In principle there were plans for about 750 flats, some of which were intended to be ‘affordable’ with other planning gains coming from the provision of some sort of community facility. In practice development had been piecemeal: Hiscox Finance would bring a major employer, though the employees might not actually live in the area; St John University have a 240 room building for their students, but these would be a changing constituency of temporary residents; DEFRA has a securely guarded site that raises questions as to the viabilities of private and public spaces in the area. In terms of employment opportunities, the area will be very different from its 19th century origins.

Of the main flat developments, the concern is that precedence will be given to the higher-value accommodation, while developers might renegotiate the proportion of affordable housing stock under new rules. In turn this may lead to a degree of gentrification in the area, pushing up the rentals for Stonebow House and making it difficult to sustain its present social value. One change that had already occurred was the plan for a series of cafes and other social spaces along the bank of the River Foss, replaced by a single cafe. There was generally a lack of green spaces and public areas in which social interaction could occur and assist in the formation of a community process. While there might be an improvement in the physical provision of housing over what had existed in the 1930s, there would be little chance of helping to develop the social spirit that once characterised the area and that would, in its turn, put value on Stonebow House.

Needless to say there were lots of practical ideas, some contradictory, some more in hope than expectation. Whatever happens, the spaces and places need to be captured and documented as they are now, to help understand the process of history. Attention needs to be given to the needs of existing users, whether commercial enterprises or customers or footfall in passing. There should be thought about the context in which Stonebow House lies, and the need for social space, for green space, for access, for interaction, for viewpoints. There is an important need for opportunities for evening leisure, other than the standard fare of pubs and clubs, with attention to the less ordinary and to groups of people, such as young teens for whom there is little on offer. Affordable housing close to the city needs to be more of a priority, informing this and all other surrounding developments. If existing amenities are lost to any proposed developments, attention needs to be made to possible alternatives: this will be particularly true for the alternative cultural venues. Attention needs to be given to the needs of all people in the area: those who live there, work there, run their businesses there, pass through, and these need to be attended to in a balanced and fair way beneficial to all concerned. Stonebow House in particular could represent the solution to the need for a major arts and cultural centre that is lacking in York, without damaging what is already there and without causing problems to other developments in the area.

There was considerable discussion as to how the process that has been engendered by this event can produce positive and constructive outcomes for all interested parties – particularly as it had proved possible for a wide variety of people and opinions to come together, speak and be heard in a supportive and courteous environment, however strong opinions might have been. It was felt that particular effort needed to be put into how the gap can be bridged between the mutual perceptions of the Council, developers, businesses and the wider community. As one person put it, “how do we get ‘them’ to help ‘us’ help ‘them’ get to a good answer?” It was felt important to generate forums for this to happen before actual developments occurred and to bring in a much wider variety of people and interests other than those present on this day. There was a need to get a public debate going through the Press and local radio. How do you bring together the different imperatives of economics, imagination, community and culture? How do you avoid the debate causing uncertainty and planning blight?

It was recognised that the core of a developing network existed in the form of the lapsed Hungate Community Trust. A meeting was to be organised at the Black Swan in April to try to revitalise this organisation and build on its existing legal constitution and status within the planning context for Hungate as a whole. While there was a need to bring in other groups and interested parties, this would be a useful starting point.

At the same time, as part of the wider discussions around the Living With History, Helen Graham has a meeting with James Alexander in the near future, where she can raise questions on behalf of those interested, as well as asking about future plans, processes, timetables and staffing resources In particular this may be an opportunity to open up some transparency about plans for Stonebow House and the Hungate context, as well as any wider strategies and policies.


4 thoughts on “Stonebow House – reflections on April event and next steps

  1. Pingback: Since October… an ‘how should decisions about heritage be made?’ project update | How should decisions about heritage be made?

  2. Pingback: Stonebow House: Why it’s an important building for York | York: Living with History

  3. Pingback: Stonebow House: Not exactly ‘YES’ or ‘NO’…at our last event there was a lot of grey | York: Living with History

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