How's that for a grand design?
It's the most ambitious makeover series yet. Channel 4 is attempting to regenerate a whole town - the impoverished former mining community of Castleford in Yorkshire. But, wonders Caroline Roux, how do its forthright residents view the arrival of sculpture-strewn greens and swanky riverfront developments?
Thursday February 10, 2005
Wendy Rayner was born with the sound of the river in her ears. Her family has lived on Castleford's fast-flowing river Aire for 200 years and she now occupies a riverfront cottage divided from the water by the narrow Lock Lane. Her eldest daughter lives next door but two, her granddaughter lives in the house where Rayner was born, her youngest daughter in the old post office down the road. "My son lived here till he divorced. Now he lives over the other side," she says, pointing to the further shore, a part of town that Rayner still views as slightly foreign.
Castleford in West Yorkshire is a town out of time. It is 99.1% white, only half its 40,000 population have academic qualifications, and teenage pregnancy is high. It registers an above-average amount of health problems and disability and a stable population, few of whom leave. Crime rates are high (though falling), car ownership is small (though growing). But it is not a landscape of towerblocks and a concrete 60s shopping centre; Castleford offers up streets of redbrick housing, late-1950s council estates with curving road plans surrounded by more recent private developments, an open-air market and countryside that creeps right into the town. Battered and torn it might be; urban it is not. Leeds, just 10 miles from here, is a world away.
It is this town that Channel 4 has selected to play the lead in the broadcaster's biggest makeover series yet. The marriage that has been waiting to happen between reality TV, beloved by broadcasters, and regeneration, beloved by down-at-heel regional towns, is being consummated in Castleford. It's a total town makeover.
"I was a little nervous about the project," says Kevin McCloud, the face of Channel 4's Grand Designs who is presenting The Castleford Project, to be screened later this year. "When television people have ideas, you never know if they are doable. There is a problem matching expectations with reality. Television tends to be short-termist and regeneration is quite the opposite." Indeed, the entire series' production schedule had to be reorganised after Wakefield District Council took more time than expected to finalise contracts for several projects.
Channel 4 is investing in the project as part of its public-service remit; the production company Talkback is making the show. David Barrie, the project executive, is an experienced documentary maker whose career has included being imprisoned in Liberia. Good experience, perhaps, for dealing with eight groups of architects, a local council and the forthright population of a former mining town. "In all the places we 'interviewed'," he says, "we were looking for actual evidence that the townspeople had the ability and the conviction to drive the process, and for a town that really needed improvement. We found that here."
Castlefordians, who endured the miners' strikes of the 1980s and the subsequent devastation of pit closures and job losses (one in seven were unemployed in the late 80s), are no strangers to self-mobilisation. "My brother died aged 37 of a broken heart after they closed the pit," says Alison Drake, the chair of the heritage committee, whom Barrie dubs the "Queen of Cas". "Those things increase the fight in the rest of you." (And make good television.)
Long before Channel 4 arrived, independent groups in the town had been badgering the local authority with plans and projects they thought could save their town from decay. "We inherited a list of needs and wants," says Barrie. "Improved shopping, play areas, revival of the riverfront. We didn't have to make anything up."
The first regeneration project is in the village of New Fryston, two miles out of town. Between two remaining streets of tiny colliery housing, the internationally respected American landscape designer Martha Schwartz has created a new village green out of a scrappy old piece of land. "It's not the end of the world," says Alan Jackson, the project's on-site manager, as we stare out across the bruised, hummocky landscape that buries the old coalfields, "but you can see it from here."
Schwartz's solution is a modern angular layout combining blue and purple play frames with Antony Gormley sculptures, a bridle path (horses dot the hillsides) and an old red colliery wheel. One wonders what "Jack Hulme, colliery worker, hairdresser and photographer", who lived at 14 North Street from 1906 to 1990 (so the plaque by the front door says), would make of such an avant-garde design. The lady from number 17, for one, wasn't happy. "You put that wheel back," she shouted through expletives when Talkback came to film. "Arthur bloody Scargill put that wheel where it was."
The first point of the Channel 4 exercise is complete community participation. Groups of 11 local people (no councillors allowed) led by one "community champion" consult and vote on each project. The second is the hope that the eight projects, though small and not especially costly, can bring some delight back to a town to which outside investors will then inexorably be drawn. This, somewhat miraculously, has already come to pass. One developer, Edinburgh House, has just committed to a Â£50m project in the town centre, bringing much-needed new shops and housing; another, Amenbury, is planning a proposal for the riverfront. "That kind of economic commitment is crucial," says McCloud. "People see regeneration as a combination of public funding and community commitment. But private funding is essential."
"Once you harness the public sector, it brings in the private," says Barrie, who had lined up Â£6m from public agencies including Wakefield district council, Yorkshire Forward and Coalfield Regeneration. Now the government has agreed to a public transport rationalisation that will relocate and combine the bus and train stations. This will please the commuters streaming off the 18.04 from Leeds who are currently treated to the prospect of the flat-roofed British Legion, Liberal and Anglers clubs and the windowless sheds that house supercheap supermarkets Netto and Aldo, behind which boys in hoods play messy football matches. If Castleford is to absorb more of the wealth of nearby glitzy Leeds, appearance is everything.
Everyone is at pains to point out that this is real regeneration, not a made-for-TV compromise. In terms of process, this might be true. Without the TV involvement, however, Castleford would have been unlikely to have persuaded Roger Zogolovitch, one of the country's most dynamic design-led developers, to select suitable architects, or Peter Rogers, the CEO of developers Stanhope, on to the steering committee. In their slipstream came the sort of designers who are wowing the cognoscenti with radically conceived new schools, rethought public spaces and avant-garde art galleries.
Not that things have gone according to plan. Of the consultation at New Fryston, community champion Rheta Davison, a determined smoker with a sharply pulled-back ponytail, says, "They did it very wrong. They put on refreshment of the wrong kind . Made people a bit argumentative." Postmodern architectural jesters FAT (Fashion, Architecture, Taste) riled locals with a jokey presentation for the Riverside rehabilitation, and the suggestion that they were architecture's Reeves and Mortimer. "They really took the mickey," says Wendy Rayner, community champion of the Riverside group. "Yorkshire people didn't like that. There was a pets' graveyard, beehives, flags or summat. Wigwams. It was ... inappropriate."
Consultation does have its risks. Architect Deborah Saunt felt there was "consultation fatigue" in Castleford: "People get frustrated when ultimately their ideas don't get taken on board." And McCloud warns that "designers can be so appeasing to communities that the design itself becomes bland". It is too early to tell if Castleford's projects will fall victim to this.
Down the road in Glasshoughton, there is regeneration of another kind in which no television crew was involved. Where once stood the Glasshoughton colliery, there is now the Xscape leisure complex, the Freeport shopping centre and generous car parking facilities, offering more jobs above ground than the pit did when it closed in 1986. All comers are lured off the M62 with the promise of Xscape's indoor skiing, snowboarding, bowling and 14 cinemas, and lots of shiny shops. "Xscape has shown that this is a great area to visit," says Yvette Cooper, the local MP, without irony, of the silver edifice that seems in complete denial of its surroundings. But it has helped Castleford assert its identity. "You see it advertised in Leeds, even on the London underground," says Cooper.
Whether eight small projects - the play meadow, an improved pedestrian underpass etc - can change a town's character remains to be seen. The mood is bright, however. "We're working on improving this street," says Dawn Lee of Sagar Street, home to her mother's shop Val's Razzle Dazzle Em Fancy Dress and Dance Wear, a spangly mecca of competition dance clothing. "And because of the Channel 4 stuff, the council is stumping up the money."
Dave Ward, editor of the Pontefract and Castleford Express, says there has not been one letter expressing cynicism or distrust of the affair in his newspaper's pages. "There was initial scepticism about having a TV crew around: were we going to be portrayed as whippet-keeping, flat cap-wearing northerners? It would be so easy to caricature us." But the continual presence of TV folk, from the single camera to the full crew, has had the desired mollifying effect. "We all know each other now," says a jolly McCloud.
Castleford's coat of arms has a castle, a ford, a white rose and a Roman eagle with a miner's lamp around its neck. Perhaps in 2005, they will see fit to add a children's play meadow and a television camera as symbols of the town's new civic pride.