Phil Bixby: The real crisis York faces is a crisis of decision-making

In yellow are new buildings proposed for Bishophill by the Esher Report, 'York: A Study in Conservation', 1968. Some of the proposed changes didn't ultimately happen in large part due to community activism. Instead of the negative cycle of plans being offered for 'consultation' followed by anger, campaigns or disengagement, can we find a more creative way of planning the city's future together
In yellow are new buildings proposed for Bishophill by the Esher Report, ‘York: A Study in Conservation’, 1968. Some of the proposed changes didn’t ultimately happen in large part due to community activism. Instead of the negative cycle of plans being offered for ‘consultation’ followed by anger, campaigns or disengagement, can we find a more creative way of planning the city’s future together

One strand of the ‘York and Housing: Histories Behind the Headlines’ project is to seek articles, opinion pieces and interventions from people with something to say about the histories and future of housing in York. Alongside the archive work and events, we hope these pieces will inform, provoke and enrich public debate and create the conditions for engaged local decision-making.

Helen Graham talks with Phil Bixby, Chair of York Environment Forum and an architect with York-based Constructive Individuals which specializes in sustainable design and self- and community-led design and building.

Helen: In your view, what are the issues facing York and Housing?

Phil: We have this steamroller of increasing house prices and unaffordability in the city. Yet the real issue is that we don’t know how to decide. We don’t know how to move things forward and as a result we tend to fall into the ‘let’s try not to offend too many people’ scenario, which usually gives you the worst solutions. One of my issues with York is we are timid about what we do. We often lack the political will to push forward well thought through and bold solutions. We can’t stay the same. We’re not, we’re changing all the time. Do we want to be in control of change or be controlled by it? It is better to be in control.

Helen: Where does this timidity come from do you think?

Phil: The historical angle is that we are big village that has got really, really big. There is an attitude to politics which can be small-minded. The city council over the past few years has been more interested in infighting and back-biting and that has steered policy when we should be dealing with bigger issues. We bang on about how unique and special York is. And we’ve had lots of very interesting reports done such as the report Urbed’s A New Vision for York in 2003 and the 2010 York New City Beautiful report. Both reports were full of all sorts of interesting possibilities, all spelt out in glorious Technicolor, but nothing has happen. It’s time we upped our game. We desperately need politicians and officers in the Council to stick their necks out, take some flak [I feel for Dave Merritt, he did stuff which was unpopular and has been crucified for it.]

York is changing. If you say ‘it’s fine as it is’ then York is slightly different even as you are saying so. Development in York has happened in a piecemeal way, drip, drip, drip. You get the filling in of urban green space, suburbs, but you don’t get the bigger decision. You don’t get place making where you actively create urban or suburban centres or spaces, buildings and infrastructures that enables communities to happen. The danger is you just get dormitories which lack facilities and have no character.

Helen: What did you think about the last version of the local plan which failed to be passed in November 2014?

Phil: It was fairly shambolic. The density proposals were very low. It sidestepped the green belt issues. It was about avoiding getting shot, rather than doing something good. Specifically the low density on York Central and the British Sugar site needs to be looked at again.

There are a few developments that have happened which have been good. I’m thinking of Derwenthorpe, where there was a real effort to crank up densities. They didn’t just say let’s have some green space where we might allow ball games, what they did was let’s look at the urban realm so that spaces could be more used, places for kids to play, traffic to move and views to look out at. Talking to the developers, the property valuation was still the same but the houses sold more quickly. Buyers could see it was going to be a good place to be.

Derwenthorpe is what becomes possible when we have Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust holding the reins and setting the brief. The city needs to become the JRF in these developments.

Helen: York has seen development happening over the centuries, are there things in the city’s traditions that we can build on in addressing housing need today?

Phil: York is always seen as being distinctive because of the compact medieval centre. It historic core is often pictured a little bit like a floating yolk in a large fried egg of utterly characterless suburbia. But there have been really inspiring visions. For example Urbed’s Nicholas Falk and David Rudlin developed a fascinating idea for new Garden Cities in 2014. In this plan – which could be for any historic town of around 200,000 people but was based on York – used a snowflake approach to build on three bits of the green belt but also develop the quality of green spaces both around exiting city boundary and the new developments (not just ecologically impoverished farmland but woods and wildlife). It was a really radical proposal and had so much more substance than anything else that had been described so far.

Helen: So there are lots of fantastic ideas but it feels like we have some systemic issues in York in terms of decision-making. For example we have pretty flawed consultation processes – when we were doing the ‘How should heritage decisions be made?’ project in York, and having lots of public conversations about decision making in the city, the metaphor of a ‘fig leaf’ was constantly being used to describe consultation.

Phil: Community consultation in York, and in most places, has a really bad history. What tends to happen is that decisions are made in smoke filled rooms, then consultation happens. The underlying feeling is that the agenda is already set, and it is set, because the public only get asked certain questions. With the ABB site redevelopment, the Council did jump on board with community engagement and took a reasonable crack at it. There was a community advisory group and interesting things came out but it was still after pretty much everything had been decided. It was put out there when the masterplanning was about the detail rather than fundamentals. At that point all people can offer is ‘oh that’s not too bad’ or ‘I don’t like it’. You need to involve people at the right time and ask them the right questions. We need to start taking the conversation back to the point when creativity can happen.

Absolutely, the ‘fig leaf’ approach leads to negativity and anger because people know they can’t meaningfully contribute and is actually really damaging to local democracy. How might we start to build creative conversations about the future of York?

I think we should really work at creating an environment that enables ideas to be kicked around. When I first start working on community based stuff I used Planning for Real. A key idea in Planning for Real is separating ideas from people. One of the dangers with the consultation approach is that by the time communities get to hear about plans they are completely attached a specific developer or administration. This then tends to generates local opposition, often personality-based. We need to find ways of defusing that by starting conversations much earlier and start moving towards positive stuff.

Design – whether of houses or cities – should be possible and it should be fun. Design should be hugely enjoyable. The process of creativity should make everyone involved glow with well being and if you are having public meetings where everyone goes away annoyed then you’re doing something wrong.

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