A final edit of the text by the author confirms the impressive achievements of the Society over these first 40 years. The book must speak for itself, and any attempt to summarise would only be to repeat much of what has been recorded. In any event, each reader will have his or her own opinions on what is important. The Society’s principal raison d’être has been, as it will always be (unless its direction changed considerably, when it would cease to be a civic society) to strive for the highest quality of the civic scene. But it should not be forgotten that for many members, membership has been a route to the social enrichment of joining a body of like minded citizens. Judging from the popularity of the winter programmes and the quality of the newsletters, there is little doubt that in these activities the Society has enjoyed great success
It would be cowardly in a book about the Lancaster Civic Society not to attempt some comment on its effect on the changes to the city over the years and where it stands at the moment.
In these days of media driven hyperbole, perception by the community of the Society’s image, its achievements and its standing are matters which cannot be ignored by the members. In publicising itself, perhaps the Society has not been as successful as it might have been. It is a fairly safe guess that most of the non-Society population of the city have either never heard of the Society or have only a vague idea of its purpose. Ideally, it should be seen widely as the community’s watchdog, in the encouragement of the best in civic design, and the discouragement of the worst. Distance may lend enchantment, but there is some evidence that the Society’s name was better known in the early days than it is today. Somehow it has to reclaim lost ground if it is to play to the full the functions laid down by its constitution. The executive committee has attempted to come to terms with parts of this problem. In 2003 they debated a paper “Towards more distinguished buildings in Lancaster”. This was an opportunity to debate many of the issues discussed below: mediocre buildings: over hasty acceptance of government targets: lack of appropriately qualified staff in the Town Hall: apathy towards design innovation and quality: difficulty in getting consistent treatment by the planners to Society responses: the Society learning too late of new schemes. Resulting from these conclusions arose agreement to engage more closely with the planners, developers and their architects.
The Society’s policies in balancing desire for conciliation against an appetite for controversy need to be defined. One of its most likeable qualities has been its desire for mediation, for a consensual solution to the many pressures on the civic environment. Such a policy may go back to the days when the Society had good friends in the Town Hall, professionals like the Society’s movers, who were equally motivated towards negotiated solutions. In today’s climate, with a Town Hall at times seemingly indifferent to its existence, such professional attitudes may not be enough. Is it time for the Society to be more assertive yet without destroying its instincts for compromise? The media loves controversy, so this is a way to attract its attention.
Thus, two forces important to the future standing of the Society are clear: the Town Hall, and the Lancaster Guardian. Firstly, the Town Hall. The playing (sometimes battle) field has, of course always been dominated by Society and Town Hall. Should we look for blame or scapegoats in the cooling relationship between City and Society? It takes two to tango: as has been discussed in Society and Town Hall, so it is difficult for any civic society to flourish in the face of an unsympathetic Town Hall. Over recent years the climate for sensitive design has changed, with movement towards increasing privatisation (less initiation of development by the authority itself, more reliance on the commercial sector, fewer officers with professional design skills). So we should not judge our Town Hall too harshly regarding forces over which it may have lessened control. But these changes do underline the need for a vocal civic society. It would do no harm constantly to remind the City that it in its civic society it has a valuable asset which it could use constructively. That it has ready access to some professional design skills which it no longer employs. The phrase “Critical Friend” coined by a previous chief planning officer keeps coming to mind.
Comment has been made elsewhere that contact with councillors has been almost non-existent, ever since the Society was formed. This serves as a reminder that the Society should identify within the Town Hall those who will be sympathetic in promoting a cause, and those who may be less helpful, both officers and councillors. The processes of lobbying will be familiar to the Town Hall: they are less obvious to the Society. It is many years since there was a councillor on the committee. The only attempt in recent years by the executive committee to engage with the City’s councillors was in 2005, when Anne Chapman, also a member of the planning committee was invited to address the executive committee. She admitted that design is not always a priority when reviewing applications and there is no-one with an architectural background to assist in making decisions. She offered valuable advice on routes for lobbying the Town Hall on planning matters.
Relations with the Lancaster Guardian naturally complement those with the Town Hall. It seems a great pity that there is apparently so little wish by the Guardian to use the Society more as a source of news so perhaps the Society should look for reasons. As suggested above, if the Society were to be seen as more combative, more column inches would appear. The press likes controversy. Would the appointment of a publicity officer be part of the solution?
Comment has been made on the notable absence of interest by the Society (until very recently on the specific issue of a housing development) in the University’s building programme, which is a general opportunity to suggest that the time might have come for the Society to spell out more precisely its boundaries of interest. We have already seen that in addition to the University, there are other major building developments where the Society has looked the other way – the Royal Lancaster Infirmary, White Cross, have been mentioned.
These are examples of major influences by developments which influence the appearance and economics of the ancient city. But we should not ignore Morecambe altogether when considering the immediate future civic influences of the Society. Schemes like the future of the Winter Gardens, the Midland Hotel, the sea front will always attract the Society’s interest, and the problems of Morecambe as a whole are too big to be tackled by a society with few resources. But there is one part of the town which might just benefit from the Society’s attentions: the quite unbeautiful White Lund industrial site. It really is a civic disgrace and an affront to a civilised and prosperous society. White Lund as it is will not disappear overnight, but might the Society not become a focus for a long term revival plan?
The final levers for the Society in all this postulating over what might or might not happen are tourism and competition from Kendal and Preston. Lancaster is not the only town to realise the importance of tourism to its future, and if the Society ever needs a lever over a suspect development it can show the tourism card. Lancaster has always had to compete with the towns to its north and south for its future prosperity. The Society should be aware of and bring to public debate the forces which will influence all three towns.
Development of the blighted Eastern Relief Road corridor – Castle View – will shift the commercial/shopping centre of gravity of the city for the first time since Mackereth produced his wonderful map of 1780 which showed a centre roughly bounded by King Street, China Street, Cable Street, Stonewell. An urban boundary stretching back long before Mackereth. Not even the Luneside developments will have such a fundamental effect. It seems a fitting end to the first 40 years and the start of the next that the Society may have some influence on this site and how it will connect to the “old” city. Handled properly it will enrich the city, encourage the tourist and provide an edge over Kendal and Preston. Handled badly, another Arndale? The Lancaster Civic Society must do its best to ensure that such a fate is avoided.
(c) 2009 Malcolm Taylor