How York Minster is changing the heritage planning process - Alex McCallion

Alex McCallion, the Director of Works and Precinct at York Minster, explains why it is setting a new blueprint in heritage estate management.

As an 800-year-old building, York Minster and its Gothic architecture are subject to a complex and ongoing cycle of repair, restoration and conservation. So complex in fact, it currently costs £22,000 a day to maintain the Minster and keep it open to the public.

The Chapter of York – the governing body responsible for the care of the Minster – receives no regular source of funding and relies upon the generosity of funding bodies and individuals to maintain it.

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With such large financial pressures, as well as ongoing external threats to the Minster, such as it facing its biggest environmental risk since the Industrial Revolution, there is a major need to secure a sustainable future for it whilst also preserving its treasured heritage and history.

Alex McCallion, the director of works and precinct at York Minster pictured in the stone masons yard. Picture Tony Johnson.Alex McCallion, the director of works and precinct at York Minster pictured in the stone masons yard. Picture Tony Johnson.
Alex McCallion, the director of works and precinct at York Minster pictured in the stone masons yard. Picture Tony Johnson.

In 2017, we started to explore ways of creating a financially viable strategy which would be delivered through an achievable and sympathetic masterplan vision, supporting the Chapter in reordering its estate to meet the challenges of the 21st century, including a move towards a low carbon estate by 2030.

The impetus is not just to futureproof the Minster, but also the surrounding Precinct of more than 60 listed buildings and home to centuries old techniques in ancient crafts such as stonemasonry and stained glass making.

The Minster is enormously important to York, a city which is famously difficult to navigate when it comes to planning and development, exacerbated by the lack of specific planning policy in the emerging Local Plan for York. So, when it came to assessing a viable route for the Minster’s future, we had no choice but to forge our own path, albeit in positive partnership with key city stakeholders.

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To help us achieve this, we established the York Minster Precinct Neighbourhood Forum – made up of those living or working in the Minster Precinct – to create a genuinely community-led plan which intimately understands the complexities and sensitivities of planning for future change in a heritage setting by creating specially tailored planning policy to achieve our vision.

The result was the York Minster Neighbourhood Plan: a route map with sustainability at its heart, which sets out how the Minster and its Precinct will be cared for over the next 15 years.

The Plan sets out the biggest planned programme of works in 150 years and will be a vital tool as we move towards a low carbon estate over the next eight years.

Neighbourhood Plans are commonly used by local and city councils to shape the urban planning process, but ours is a truly unique approach, marking the first time that a Neighbourhood Plan has ever been used to map the future of a cathedral or heritage estate.

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While this approach is already setting a national precedent and will undoubtedly become a benchmark for how to approach heritage estate management, its local importance is even more vital. Having been approved at a public referendum at the beginning of May, the Neighbourhood Plan will soon be adopted by City of York Council, and will not only be used to determine future planning applications in the Precinct, but will form part of the Development Plan for the city.

Our vision for the Neighbourhood Plan is that the Minster and all that it offers is not only preserved, but enhanced, aided by the creation of new public realm, visitor facilities, community space and a dedicated museum.

One of the first key projects of the plan is the establishment of an internationally renowned Centre of Excellence for the heritage craft skills such as stonemasonry and glaziery, responsible for the continued care of the Minster. Through the Centre of Excellence, we want to create a multi-disciplinary, world-class campus for research, education and training in the ancient craft skills, which is critical if we are to secure the long-term environmental, financial and heritage sustainability of York Minster.

As it’s often just as important to look forwards as it is to look backwards, the centre will allow current and prospective apprentices to learn cutting-edge digital techniques such as modern saw technology, data scanning and computer aided design thanks to the Research and Development Project being led by York Minster Fund.

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Our hope is that both our Neighbourhood Plan approach and the proposed Centre for Excellence will establish the Minster as leading the charge on partnership-led, community focused heritage management and conservation.