When I first visited Castleford in 2001, I found a wounded place. Once, this West Yorkshire town was within easy reach of over a dozen mines. On top of that, there were two chemical works, a glassworks, and all the ancillary industry of a thriving community. But when the pits closed in the 1980s and 1990s, everything else died. To add insult to injury, an out-of-town shopping centre was built next to the nearby M62, complete with an indoor snowdome. Famously, one or two miners got jobs there as ski instructors, but Castleford's town centre – along with the the banners, singing, bands and culture of the miners – withered.
Castleford (population 37,525 in the 2001 census) lies between Leeds and Sheffield. When the pits closed, the town had one of the highest unemployment rates in the UK. Even today, one ward, Castleford Ferry Fryston, is in the top five per cent of most deprived places in England.
So if ever a place was worthy of regeneration, Castleford was it. Five years ago, the Castleford Project was initiated to help the scars to heal. The town had been chosen as the beneficiary of a community-led regeneration scheme, with money – that would eventually grow to £11m – coming from Channel 4, the local council and a handful of other agencies. For a television programme called Kevin McCloud's Big Town Plan, I've been charting the progress of Castleford over the past five years. The four-part series tests the theory that good design can help to kickstart regeneration. But crucially, that design would be led not by the council, or for that matter Channel 4, but rather by the residents of Castleford.
Castlefordians have a healthy dose of scepticism. At the beginning of the regeneration process, one local man said to me: "It'll never happen. We've seen it all before. It's all going to end in disaster." Three days before the opening of Castleford Bridge – to my mind the most spectacular single structure to come out of the project – when it had been finished for two weeks and was just waiting for the barrier to be taken down, there were still people saying, "It'll never open."
In the early 1990s there were promises of regeneration projects, which never happened. When Channel 4 arrived and said they were putting in £100,000, with more money promised from the regional regeneration agency and the local council, why on earth should the locals have believed that this time would be any different?
But we chose Castleford because it wasn't just about commercial regeneration. Here was a small town where the community were poised to be involved. To be a community ' champion, driving small projects such as those we have seen happen over the years we've been filming, you need a lot of time and energy, because it's unpaid. So you've got to be on disability benefit, a pensioner, or young and single with a private income. You simply can't do it if you're a mother of three kids or a working couple. It's no coincidence that Castleford's most prominent champions, the people featured on these pages, all fit into those categories.
Rheta Davidson is a one-woman tour de force. Now an MBE, she runs the community group in the Castleford suburb of Cutsyke and was instrumental in building a new "play forest" for the children in her community. Davidson brought in as many of the kids as possible to contribute ideas – they're the real clients, after all, in this design process.
At the new village green in the former pit village of New Fryston, the young people designed and painted steel panels and placards. They've got graffiti on them, but at least it's all on the back where there's no design. The front hasn't been touched. The kids have magicked a power into the place by designing something that other young people respect.
Ashley Blakeston, who was just 14 at the beginning of the process, championed the Wilson Street Triangle initiative. I had to swallow my pride with that project, because it had zero design content. It simply involved the rebuilding of garden walls, gates, roads and green spaces. It's a low-ambition scheme, but it's done its job well, so hats off. It's changed that place, and the feeling among the residents there.
The series will also show the mistakes that were made along the way – and there were a few. When you don't have passionate communities driving things forward, projects don't really work. A garden influenced by the landscape architect Martha Schwartz, for example (essentially a new village green parachuted into a nearby ex-mining village by English Partnerships), is a fabulous design, but it had no champions in the community and nobody really wanted it. English Partnerships championed it, and the community weren't hugely involved. So the result is that the community don't like it, don't want it, and aren't prepared to take ownership of it.
The town centre, which has also undergone redevelopment as part of the regeneration scheme, is still a bit of a mess. What is missing is a really inspiring centre square, which would make a big developer think, "My god, this is beautiful, we could open a chain of coffee shops here." Alison Drake is leading a project to build a large forum building. The town centre was in the shadow of Castleford's two old chemical works. Now that they're shut, people are more prepared to invest in the town centre, and that brings in housing and everything, hopefully, snowballs from there.
Urban regeneration is not an old discipline, and the agencies revamping our cities are still learning. Look at Glasgow, Manchester and Birmingham. It's undoubtable that the regeneration of those city centres – Salford Quays in Manchester, or the Bull Ring in Birmingham, say – has succeeded because of the critical mass that those large city authorities have. It's easier for a large city to commission a plan and work with big developers to design big new city centre spaces. Howard Bernstein did it with Manchester, Clive Dutton did it in Birmingham.
But the issue is, how do small towns do it? Castleford doesn't even have its own council, it's part of Wakefield Metropolitan District Council. Peter Box, the council leader, happens to be Castlefordian, which has helped a bit. But two years ago, I was talking to the chief executive, who said: "Now we have to focus on Wakefield." "Hang on a minute," I said, "You haven't even finished working on Castleford yet!" There's a danger that local authorities, in trying to spread the money around, don't give enough attention to projects, and don't finish them properly. What regeneration agencies and councils are learning is that it isn't enough just to ask communities if they're happy with the project and its design. They should be helping the community to be better clients of the designers and architects involved. That's a very different way of doing it.
Sometimes you get a really engaged architect with a passionate client and community representative – look at the footbridge, which was designed by Renato Benedetti. The architect was passionate and drove it through even when it was going pear-shaped. It ended up costing £4.8m, the largest chunk of the £11m initiative across Castleford. But Benedetti persisted, and he was around until the end because he wanted to ensure the quality of the finished product. Wendy Rayner (a retired cook) and Alison Drake (a retired primary school teacher), who both championed the project, really pushed and bullied men (and women) in suits, saying, "We want Renato."
Someone in Castleford said about the bridge: "It's great, but it's too good for Castleford." Which is like saying the Guggenheim Museum is too good for Bilbao. He's right – it was too good for Bilbao – but it did what was required, and now every town wants a shiny new "statement structure". It's dangerous for small towns to think that they can achieve the same magic trick, but I think in Castleford it's going to work.
People often suggest that high-quality design is a waste of taxpayers' money, but the Castleford footbridge proves that the opposite is true. First of all, the town needed a bridge; it's not a vapid statement, it's a practical requirement. Secondly, it's designed to be a destination in itself for residents – it has seats where you can stop and watch the river. It enhances people's relationship with where they live, with the river, the weir, the town. And lastly, it's a structure that's so beautiful, people will probably come especially to Castleford just to look at it, and that's got to be good for the place.
I suppose you could argue that programmes such as Grand Designs have shown more people the levels to which they can aspire architecturally. I hope that what the Castleford series shows is that the next thing is public space – the area outside your home. It isn't actually the responsibility of the council, the police or the parks department. It's yours. If you want to improve it, and you make a stand, you will discover the extraordinary power of community action.
When the bridge finally opened, I thought that 100 people would come, but about 600 turned up. I realised that they were possessing it, this great tide of people, they made it their own and they stayed there for hours singing and dancing. There's a great tradition of promenading in Castleford. In the 1960s and 1970s, people would go out of an evening and the boys and girls would promenade around each other. The minister Yvette Cooper is Castleford's MP and as we stood watching the bridge at about nine o'clock in the evening, she turned to me and said, "Look, the people of Castleford are promenading again." It was an extraordinary moment.
'Kevin McCloud's Big Town Plan' begins Sunday 10 August on Channel 4. See www.channel4.com/castleford for information
Alison Drake, 57, chair of the Heritage Trust
"More could have been done to support Castleford when the pits went. We're still a proud town full of the sort of people who get stuck in and try to do things for ourselves, and that's what Channel 4 spotted.
I first heard about the project when Yorkshire Forward, the regional regeneration organisation, asked me to meet a young man from Channel 4, show him around and explain our regeneration strategy. What I didn't know was that he was looking for a town to make a programme in.
I did my best to sell him the town and tell him why we wanted better. I think we needed that push from outside the district. I don't think we would have been so successful so quickly without it. You put a camera in front of funders and local authorities and they're not going to be as negative as they might have been.
I'm proud of the bridge, but also of the Sagar Street Gallery. We had a big call for an art gallery when we asked people for ideas. Castleford has such a rich history – not only our Roman collection, but the industrial heritage. One of the things people wanted was an acknowledgement of that. And with the gallery, they've now got it."
Wendy Rayner, 65, Lock Lane Residents' Association
"My family have lived in Castleford, on the same street, for five generations. The town really did its duty to Victorian industry. We had brickworks, corking factories, basket factories, glassworks, iron foundries and almost 15 coal mines. But when the pits went, everything went. It was very demoralising. Castleford is an emotional place. Even if the rugby team loses, the whole town is down in the dumps.
I've always lived near the river. It's a small stretch but full of character. Traffic had been increasing on the old roadbridge for years – it wasn't safe for pedestrians – so when I heard there was the possibility of having a footbridge, my ears pricked up. Alison Drake, my husband and I were the ones who eventually picked the designer.
The idea was that the Castleford Bridge would follow the curve of the weir. At first we thought it wouldn't be possible, but we knew we didn't want a concrete bridge to obscure the weir, because we have a nice view upstream from our front door. We explained what we wanted to the designer, Renato Benedetti, and he couldn't have fulfilled our brief any better.
When you get on it, it's just like being on the deck of a ship. It's fantastic. It's a start for redevelopment along the river – there are plans for riverside cafés and housing – which is something that's been needed for a long time. Our town has done its duty to industry in the past, now it's time for us to have a bit of the good life."
Rheta Davidson MBE, 56, leader, Cutsyke 'play forest' group
"The area where the play forest is now, right next to the housing estate, was just a dump. It's an allotment site as well, and kids were always lighting fires in the allotments, so we'd get the fire brigade going down there a lot.
There was nowhere for young people to go in Castleford. If you were 18 you could go to the pub, but there was nothing for the kids. I was a child once, and I used to like to stand and talk to my friends. Nowadays, they're looked upon as gangs, when most of them are just standing around chatting.
Channel 4's researcher came to talk to me about Cutsyke and whether we needed anything badly, so I told him we needed a play area for children. The kids were involved from day one. It was the young people of Cutsyke who went on outings to see other play areas, who went to design meetings, who sat in a room full of older people and aired their views.
Things are changing in town. Cafés are putting out tables and chairs, and people are sitting out and drinking coffee. Before, that never happened. It was just a little old mining town. Now it's a vibrant town where people are glad to live.
I was born in Castleford. When the pits closed, the town died a little. There wasn't the vibrancy about Castleford that there used to be. Now it's got its oomph back."
Derek, 56, & Ashley Blakeston, 19, Wilson Street Triangle group
Derek: "When I was 14, this was a vibrant market town. Butit was allowed to decline. I'd love to see it come back.
Channel 4 started holding meetings in the area, and my son Ashley went. It was him that got me involved. The whole of our area around Wilson Street – 500 houses – now has new walls, new gates, new roads and green spaces. Getting new walls encourages people to tend to the garden, and before you know it, the area is looking up again.
We ran the local newsagent's for 17 years, so everybody knows us. With us being community leaders now, we're getting our points across and things are getting done."
Ashley: "I don't remember the Castleford that older people talk about, when the town was in its heyday. When we went to the first community meeting, they were talking a lot about what young people wanted. I stood up and said, 'Instead of talking about what young people want, why don't you ask them?' One of the project directors asked me to get involved with the community group and it all spiralled from there.
The clock – the first funding application we'd put in on our own – was a big thing for us. It was symbolic because it showed that without Channel 4, the council, or anyone, we could stand on our own two feet and deliver something."
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