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Regeneration screen break
Local Government Chronicle –19 May 2005

When Channel 4 announced it would lead - and record - the regeneration of an entire town, the former pit community of Castleford was the perfect project. One year on, those grand designs are reaching fruition. Mark Smulian reports

Two streams of water, and 12 streams of funding, lie at the heart of a regeneration project that will succeed or fail in the most public way possible.

Castleford was picked last year for Channel 4's project to extend the makeover show concept to an entire town.

It brought in a team of top-notch designers and architects to work with residents and Wakefield MDC to turn their ideas for the town into reality.

The cumulative effect of numerous relatively small projects would, everyone hoped, revitalise the town and change both residents' and outsiders' perceptions.

Viewers will have to wait until autumn 2006 to see the five-part series, but things have reached "the point of no return", says Jonathan Hall, Wakefield's head of economic development and regeneration, and he is sure the community's interest and involvement will outlast Channel 4's departure.

The chance of appearing on television has undoubtedly helped to stimulate this enthusiasm. "If the television is involved, all of a sudden volunteers come out of the woodwork," notes Roy Wright, chair of the Riverside Community Group.

It was the high degree of active community spirit that attracted Channel 4 to the town. That, and Castleford's need of a makeover. Coal and chemicals were the economic staples for decades, but the first has vanished and the second very nearly so, and in less than 20 years the employment pattern has changed out of recognition.

Storage and distribution businesses on the nearby M62 have replaced many of the lost jobs, and increasing numbers of residents commute to the booming economy of nearby Leeds.

But this change has left a legacy of pit villages with no pits - where disconnected terraces of houses cluster around wasteland - rivers and canals lined with former industrial buildings and more wasteland, and a rather run down town centre.

The council has long led regeneration, and Mr Hall says Wakefield did not have to alter its priorities in the interests of good television, and "if anything the scale is bigger than it was before their involvement".

The two rivers are the Calder and the Aire - the former joins the latter just outside the town - but for years Castleford has shunned the waterfront, a situation that is changing fast.

"Early work by Channel 4 looked at the Aire and Calder, and identified the regeneration potential of developments that faced the rivers, and opening up access," he says. "Everything in the town had its back to river, it could hardly be seen."

Another problem is that the Aire cuts Castleford in half with the only link being a narrow 200-year-old bridge which carries heavy traffic and has narrow and perilous pavements. Thus was born the idea of a new footbridge above a weir adjacent to a traditional flour mill, which would join the centre to Castleford Bay a river inlet with potential for leisure use.

Both the river and town centre will be adorned by 'objects of enchantment' ("try putting that name on a planning application," Mr Hall remarks) - small, individually designed shelters that will allow the public to enjoy the river and streetscape.

Growing public interest in design has been notable. Mr Hall says: "Channel 4 brought in designers, and there is a very strong design influence running through the whole thing.

"The change is subtle, with a local willingness to talk about design and design quality, and an expectation that local people should be involved in planning Castleford and that what is planned should be well designed.

"That is a huge change. The thought you could have engaged the good people of Castleford in a debate about the finer points of urban design a few years ago would have been impossible - it would just not have happened."

This concern has inspired some residents to try to get a grip on associated funding issues, which illustrates the other aspect of the project: the broadening of the skills and horizons of those involved.

Wakefield MDC is the accountable body for public money flowing in from a dozen or so partners. Inevitably, the council has had to explain to some enthusiastic residents that their pet projects cannot be started because the money is in a funding stream earmarked for something else.

The most committed residents have taken a closer interest in local government finance than might be normal, and many have become adept at securing project funds.

Mr Hall says the project has shown mechanisms are needed to 'repool' money that originates from taxpayers, but arrives in Castleford in different streams that must then be combined again to achieve anything effective. "You have to explain to someone with a simple vision of what should be done that they need something from a different type of funding stream because of the arcane way that we hold public money, and it alienates them," he says.

Wakefield MDC has had to spend more administrative time on funding than it expected but realises its key role in the project: "We are the one organisation that will still be here the year after next," says Mr Hall.

The cumulative effects of the completed and planned projects are already creating a favourable impression on investors.

A new owner plans a 50m modernisation of the shopping mall, and a developer's plan for new homes along the Aire is "the first solid example of someone looking at the physical qualities of Castleford and saying it has real potential", Mr Hall says.

Channel 4 has not decided whether it will repeat this project elsewhere.

Mr Hall warns other councils that while there are transferable lessons in physical regeneration and capacity building, without Channel 4 it would be hard to replicate the design emphasis, since the designers were attracted by the television link.

"When people see the show, I hope they think, 'We will have a crack at that'," he says.

The River Campaigner

Riverside Community group chair Roy Wright only needed to look out of his bedroom to see the River Aire's banks had become the town's prime flytipping site.

"I knew it needed to be cleaned up, and I knew there was no way the council could do it," he says

Mr Wright was appointed riverside champion by Channel 4 and attracted 73 people to his first meeting - on a snowy evening which led to volunteers cleaning up the banks and then influencing the area's regeneration.

Mr Wright praises Wakefield's support, but thinks community leaders can win public confidence better than either council officers or councillors.

He says: "Council officers are all well and good, but people see them as politicians even if they are staff. Councillors put hour after hour into the community but might be mistrusted as politicians."

The Champion

Rheta Davison is secretary of the Cutsyke community group, which covers a 1950s council estate on the edge of Castleford.

Her group has cleared derelict land for a children's play forest, allotments, a public garden and a collection of caged rabbits, chickens and ducks that local children help to look after.

The children's involvement with the animals and amenities generates a sense of ownership that helps to reduce anti-social behaviour such as vandalism, she says.

She feels Channel 4's support has meant, "people who were reluctant to get involved did so because they liked the idea of television being there".

The producer

David Barrie, executive producer of television production company Talkback, was somewhat disorientated by the transition from the media to working with Wakefield MDC as project director.

"I am used to short deadlines, space to fill and delivery, and while councils are also concerned about delivery, the timescales are longer and the processes are far more complicated," he says.

He says the Castleford experience has proved "people like to join in with planning, rather than just being consulted.

"The most startling transformation is in skills in community leadership. That is one of the most heartening aspects of the whole exercise."

Mr Barrie is sure the work will be sustained when his crew leave. "We have reached the point where regeneration in Castleford should be self-sustaining," he says.