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York: Living with History – situating participation in heritage decision-making in a city’s systems

York: Living with History

York is known as a heritage city. Mapping heritage decision-making systems and crucially how they these systems are experienced by the people who live in the city, made clear the urgent need for alternatives to traditional forms of ‘consultation’. Instead the York team experimented with participative approaches focused – not so much on ‘sharing your opinion’ or ‘having a say’ – but on action and argument.

York systemically: We started by mapping formal structures and informal networks which make up official heritage decision-making in the city. We then also – through lots of conversations at drop ins and on public stalls – infused these maps with the lived experience of being part of, and not being part of, these processes. There were people who were very well connected and had a lot of influence over what counts as heritage in York. But also we found people who wanted to take an active part who found it hard to get an ‘in’.

Richard Brigham and Lianne Brigham, York Past and Present

We do Urban Exploring and all we wanted to do was go in and take some photographs of some ex-military hutments before they were demolished. We tried everything to get permission to go in. We phoned the Council. We got passed on to the Art Gallery. Then they passed us back to the Council. We were passed from pillar to post. Even to the point that we asked a security guard to take our camera and take photos – and the answer was still no. We thought we’ve had enough, we’re going to start something new. Start afresh. That’s when we started the Facebook group – now over 7000 strong – York Past and Present.

‘Us’ and ‘Them’: We found that the word ‘them’ was used a lot in our initial mapping processes to refer to council staff. This was directly linked to people’s experiences of ‘consultation’ – the most common of organizational attempts at ‘participation’. The use of ‘them’ revealed a sense of disempowerment over decisions: the feeling that consultation was a ‘fig leaf’ for decisions that already been taken. But the flip side of evoking ‘them’ seemed to be that it too easily absolved you of responsibility for taking the initiative or finding ways of sharing responsibility.

‘”They” are people too!’: There was also an important ‘lived experience’ dimension for those in decision-making positions. Some expressed a sense of being constantly being attacked, both by central government through recent cuts and by debates in the local press and on twitter.

Criticisms of ‘participation’: Yet we also ran into a number of people in decision-making roles who just didn’t believe in participation. The most common criticisms of participation we encountered were: that it undermines expertise, that the public can’t deal with complex information, it can’t be scaled and only attracts the usual suspects.

Experimental action: We devised a series of experimental public events, which aimed to model ways of breaking down the division of ‘us’ and ‘them’ by diversifying who is included in the informal networks influencing heritage in York, by ‘humanising’ those in decision-making positions while also addressing some of the hard-edged critiques of participation we’d unearthed.

Helen Graham, Museum and Heritage Studies, University of Leeds

There is a danger in writing up research that you tell a nice neat story. While Peter, Martin and I had put in place a backbone of mapping and then experimental events, almost everything that’s been truly revelatory or that has shifted something has come from improvising and taking opportunities which arose as we went along – not least meeting Richard and Lianne in the first month of the project, admins of what was then a new Facebook page.

Contesting what ‘York’ is: Paul Furness led two radical history walks as part of the research project. By pluralizing the sense of the city’s past, we aimed to open up a space for debate about the role of heritage in the city. The walk was then turned into a book, which in turn entered the public domain with a splash through a somewhat controversial York Press article. The press reaction made visible how control over heritage and class are intertwined in the city:

Paul Furness, Writer and Historian, York

There was a lot of coverage when we published the York: A Walk on the Wild Side book. In York Press it was centre spread, there was a news article, an editorial and a banner headline. It certainly worked – the saying that all publicity is good publicity is true. But the news article did put words into my mouth – about York ‘being twee’ – and I didn’t like the personal aspect of it, the number of people who told me to pack my bags and leave town. Yet I’m interested in the fact that what I wrote did touch a nerve. The controversy in the end wasn’t so much about the histories, it was more about what I said about the raucous drinking culture of the York races and Saturday night, ‘when York comes alive’. It was the challenge to that dull middle class mentality of a genteel city that riled people. It’s good to stir things up once in a while.

Arguments not Opinions: In response to both the general public consensus on ‘consultation’ and the hard-edged critiques of participation we’d encountered from decision makers, we modelled alternatives. We used as our case study the controversial brutalist building Stonebow House and began to explore the ways in which ‘argument’, instead of the ‘opinions’ usually asked for in consultations, might be used to address questions of scaling participation in decision-making. We also brought different types of expertise into active debate through events, Facebook and press articles and showed how to expand beyond what might be considered ‘the usual suspects’. It wasn’t that many people changed their minds but their engagement in the issues deepened and developed their perspectives. More solid ground for any decision – and the terms of any decision – emerged.

Proactive Community-Led Planning: We also explored proactive community engagement by modelling how community-initiated planning might work, focused on the Castle area.

Peter Brown, York Civic Trust

The Castle area meeting allowed a wide range of interested parties time to formulate a consensus on what would be the best (or at least the most acceptable) treatment of the spaces in and around the world class collection of historic buildings. Preliminary discussions with City Council officers have been encouraging and further meetings are planned.

Diversifying networks and crossing boundaries: Through doing these events we met some people who were as excited as we were about increasing participation in heritage decision-making, not least John Oxley, City Archaeologist who met Richard and Lianne first at one of the project’s drop-ins. This ‘magic networking path’, as Richard has named it, both helped us understand the complexities of the city and also made possible the York Past and Present public documentation (urban exploration with permission!) of the city’s Guildhall.

Martin Bashforth, radical family historian and part of York’s Alternative History

The principal benefit I gained from that was seeing how effective personal networking can be in broadening the constituency of people who might be involved in public decision-making around heritage issues. That takes effort, confidence and leadership – qualities that are not equally distributed but do have the benefit of encouraging involvement and collective work across a diverse range of people. Collectives have to be built, whether from inside or outside public institutions.

The living stream sustaining York: Certain possibilities have certainly been opened up through our research in York, but other boundaries still seem quite intractable. Finding out what is going on is hard work and relies on people liking you or you being useful to them in some way – which isn’t always easy to achieve! Sometimes offering to get involved and share responsibility has been very warmly welcomed and at other times actively discouraged. Yet the most transformative moments in the project have come when people who hadn’t met before, and perhaps wouldn’t usually meet, have got together and started talking. We know more will come from this.