'Is this a council that I see before me, not blocking a bold idea?'

The Shakespeare project in York was launched this week.
The Shakespeare project in York was launched this week.
0
Have your say

Big steps forward take big ideas and sometimes, risks. That’s why we see so few of them in public life.

Sun of York makes glorious summer as Shakespeare ‘pop-up’ tickets go on sale
Councils and government departments alike are peopled, for the most part, by administrators, not innovators. That they are also inherently risk-averse is not necessarily a handicap but neither is it a help. However, we have the right to expect that when a big idea is presented to them it is seen as such and its wheels greased – not obstacles placed in its way.

The best ideas are born of inspir­ation; you won’t find many in the pages of those jargon-ridden “strategic plans”, with names like Vision for the Future, on which public servants expend so much time. The idea taking shape in York as we speak is a case in point.

James Cundall is a theatre producer whose Yorkshire company mounts large-scale musicals and other shows at locations around the world: Phantom of the Opera, Cats, The Sound of Music… you get the idea. His latest project, conceived on a trip to Scotland when the fish weren’t biting, involves the construction out of scaffolding and corrugated iron cladding of an enormous, temporary arena resembling an Elizabethan theatre, capable of accommodating nearly 1,000 people and becoming home, during the summer months, to a cycle of Shakespeare’s plays.

It’s not yet a year since the plan was mooted, yet in less than eight months’ time it will be a reality. Tickets for the plays are already on sale.

The official launch took place this week. The promoters, tourism authorities and York City Council were there in the same room, and singing from the same hymn sheet. I can’t remember a project on anything like this scale progressing through the system so quickly and with such a consensus. There would usually have had to have been a consultation, a report and perhaps an inquiry.

The fact that the Rose Theatre is a temporary structure must have helped, but what swung the deal, apparently, was Mr Cundall’s promise to reimburse the council for the loss of revenue from the half of a car park that his theatre will occupy.

Here, in a single transaction, you see the gulf between private enterprise and public procrastination: a landmark project that should bring millions into the local economy, attract 133,000 visitors if they sell out, and might kick start the permanent regeneration of a piece of real estate punching below its weight, versus the short-term income from a few dozen car parking spaces.

At Monday’s launch event, the gentleman with whom I share this page, Sir Gary Verity, who knows more than most about not letting small-time politics muddy the bigger picture, noted that his audience of tourism industry types, council staff and elected officials were in the inspiration business now.

To inspire, he told them, depended on vision, as well as strategy.

That, in an age in which too many public authorities can muster neither, is a timely warning. Exactly what constitutes a good idea is subjective, but it’s a general rule of thumb that those announced by Ministers at hastily arranged “briefings” do not.

HS2 high speed rail looks good on paper but the plan falls apart when you consider that we still don’t have a properly functioning HS1. Likewise, the harder you study the Northern Powerhouse, the more it looks like one of the old metropolitan county councils that Margaret Thatcher did away with.

No-one is suggesting, of course, that anyone wielding enough cash should be allowed to bulldoze every harebrained new idea past the due processes of diligence and democracy, but the developments in York are have brought a welcome shift on the scale from resisting change to facilitating it.

That this has happened not 50 yards from a separate, hugely contentious plan by English Heritage to build a visitor centre next to Clifford’s Tower makes it all the more noteworthy.

As for the Shakespearean project, it promises to be top-drawer, with four plays directed by two of the country’s foremost theatre directors, a stage modelled on the one that preceded the Globe and two performances a day for 10 weeks – all in a period courtyard with free open-air entertainment and an Elizabethan-style food court.

A summer’s evening in York, enjoying Shakespeare while an ox rotates slowly on a spit… what’s not to like about that?