Selby Tony, heritage, and the Arts Barge mooring

Selby Tony (Arts Barge) in the Foss Basin, May 2016 (3)

It’s getting on for five years since I wrote about a fundraising campaign for the Arts Barge Project. Since then a barge called Selby Tony has been acquired, and as far as I know the barge is still sitting in the Foss Basin where it was last May, when I admired it and took the photos on this page.

A planning application for a permanent mooring for the Arts Barge is to be discussed at today’s planning committee meeting (Thursday 16 Feb). Application details and documents can be found here:

16/01769/FUL | Mooring of Ouse Barge converted to create floating arts venue adjacent to Tower Gardens / Skeldergate Bridge | Proposed Floating Arts Venue South Esplanade York

As is so often the case with planning applications, the accompanying documents provide interesting historical information. A Heritage Statement (one of the documents in the list on the link above) includes the following information on the barge’s history:

Selby Tony and the other barges in the fleet worked from Hull into Goole, Leeds, Selby and York and carried bulk loads including grain, molasses, coal tar from York gasworks, creosote, coal for domestic and industrial use, newsprint for the Evening Press and seeds and rice for the mills. Animal cake was also transported back to Hull for export.

Selby Tony was built in 1957 by Dunston’s at Thorne. The boats were moored alongside many other barges of similar size and larger, along York city centre’s riverbanks. The Selby Tony, is one of the last remaining cargo barges from that fleet remaining with others surviving by being converted into houseboats. Selby Peter was found stored alongside Selby Tony in Waddingtons, Swinton and was destroyed as The Arts Barge Project acquired Selby Tony.
(p29, Heritage Statement)

The focus on the heritage aspect and the stories of working life and industry is a particularly interesting and valuable part of the project, and one that doesn’t seem to have got much attention. The Heritage Statement again:

As part of the Arts Barge project, one of the first community-focused activities will be the River Heritage Project. This has already begun, when the skipper of Selby Tony (Laurie Dews, now 95) was interviewed about his time on the barge. More research will be carried out into the history of barges in York and the people who worked on them.

Selby Tony (Arts Barge) in the Foss Basin, May 2016

The same document includes an interesting snippet of information regarding the ship’s bell, which has been ‘donated to the Project by Barry Heath who bought it thirty years ago from a Car Boot sale.’

Fascinating, I think, and there’s clearly been a lot of support from many people.

It seems to have provoked equally strong ‘anti’ feelings, which I don’t quite understand. If the idea of the Arts Barge on the river in York makes you angry I’d really appreciate an explanation of why that is, as I try to understand and appreciate all points of view. As I understand it the project has had very little financial support from the council, and a lot of hard work has gone in to raising money from other means, including organising events and through donations from individuals.

After all that hard work, and with a barge in waiting, what the project needs now is a bit of river and riverbank to have a permanent mooring, which is what this planning application is about.

Looking at the planning application documents and reading the many project updates on the Arts Barge Project website gives some idea of the amount of work that has gone in to this project and in particular this important stage of trying to get a permanent mooring.

After many years of hard work, and with dear old Selby Tony already sitting in the Foss Basin, and with so much preparation and discussion of options as part of the planning application process, you’d think that the plans would have been recommended for approval.

But not so. The officer’s recommendation on this one is ‘Refuse’. That doesn’t mean the councillors have to, when they vote at Thursday’s meeting. It will be an interesting one to watch on the webcast, I think.

It’s worth reading the committee report (PDF) prepared for the meeting. Along with comments made by both supporters and objectors (and there have been a high number of both lodging comments in response to this application) it makes for a thought-provoking read. It’s provoked so many thoughts over the course of this week since I’ve read the report that I thought I’d record some of them here. The following excerpts are from that committee report.

Riverbank access

The report expresses concern that the proposals ‘would remove a public benefit i.e. free public access, views and openness between the park, river bank and the river; and replace with private access.’

Notwithstanding the fact that the Selby Tony is a normal barge as used in York historically, the permanent mooring of such a large vessel would block access for the general public to the remaining stretch of open river bank in this location

Many other changes and developments have stopped the public being able to access places we could walk before and  I haven’t seen massive public concern. Numerous private developments and the associated gating or raising of boundaries stopping us wandering onto bits of land we could wander on to before. The Theatre Royal colonnade, for example, blocked off by glass, or in the case of Bootham Park, a security guard asking us to leave, or the St Leonard’s Place development enclosing the formerly accessible car park area and Roman wall fragment, or the Stonebow walkways being no longer accessible. It seems such things are widely accepted as part of the changing nature of the city, so why not in this case?

Pilings, and rising and falling

When I’d first thought of the proposed Arts Barge I guess I’d vaguely imagined it as a vessel on the river that could move about when needed. But not so, and that’s why there’s a planning application to consider. It needs holding in place by pilings, though these will of course allow up and down movement – necessary when the river level changes, as of course it often does.

The boat would be permanently moored through pilings into the riverbed and would be held on 3 new steel river piles sited 2.5 metres from the bank on which it would rise and fall. The piles would project approximately 6 metres above embankment level.

I’m trying to picture how wide and how dominant these pilings would be. They ‘would be considered to cause views of and across the river to be permanently interrupted’, says the report.

Barge or building?

This permanency of the pilings and the need to keep the barge in a particular position on the river creates some of the difficulties in the planning application:

a distinction needs to be made between a boat utilising the mooring with normal patterns of movement and this proposal for the permanent mooring of the Arts Barge. The static permanence of the Arts Barge would be considered to be akin to that of a new building, and therefore an argument that it would increase activity levels on the river is not accepted. Similarly, by virtue of its proposed permanence, it is considered appropriate to apply the same principles of design as one would with the siting of a new building in the Conservation Area.

Which then puts the emphasis on how it looks, how it fits in with its surroundings, and notions of ‘harm’.

Views, heritage, and ‘harm’

Reading these officer reports reminds us that in a place like York, full of heritage assets and important and cherished views, it’s all about weighing up perceived ‘harm’ against the benefits. So we read statements like this:

The harm to the heritage assets is assessed as less than substantial but in these circumstances the council’s statutory duty under Sections 66 and 72 gives rise to a strong presumption against planning permission being granted, and considerable importance and weight must be given to the harm in the planning balance, despite it being less than substantial.

It’s less than substantial, the perceived harm, but it leads to a recommendation to refuse the planning application. I don’t get this at all, I’m afraid. Again, just comparing with other local examples.

We’re surrounded by examples of what could be seen as ‘harm’. Every new thing has the potential to ‘harm’ the existing cityscape, and depending on how much you admired what was there before, it often does. So, for example, just across the river from the proposed mooring site, is the Bonding Warehouse, with that extra bit added above it, when it was redeveloped. Another example of harm/change, depending on your viewpoint. And far more ‘harm’ being proposed to cherished views over on Haxby Road with the strange little chalets/sheds on top of the Rowntree factory, but that harm will get recommended for approval I expect. The perceived (essentially subjective) ‘harm’ seems to be accepted when it’s a developer needing to make a profit, over and over again. And then of course the controversial proposals for the Clifford’s Tower visitor centre, which will change an existing view quite dramatically, and therefore, on the same kind of criteria, cause ‘harm’ – change the look of something many local people cherish.

In a building instead?

The really interesting thing about the Arts Barge Project is its focus on the barge. The lovely big rusty thing being rescued and reused. Imaginative and ambitious, but then it comes up against the planning process, and this response:

It is considered that the public benefits associated with the proposed development are not sufficient to outweigh the harm to the heritage assets because the applicant has not demonstrated that a permanent base for community arts could not be provided from an existing building in the city.

The whole emphasis of the many years of work has been about bringing a barge into the city, and now they’re supposed to start looking for a building instead? I read this as one too many hoops for them to jump through.

North Street …

There’s not much choice for the Arts Barge Project if they want Selby Tony to be moored between Lendal Bridge and Skeldergate Bridge. By the North Street gardens seems to be the only other place. In many ways it seems more fitting than Tower Gardens. Opposite the City Screen development, that is, opposite where the old Evening Press used to be based, where deliveries of newsprint were made by barge, including Selby Tony apparently. The newsprint delivery was the only remaining river cargo into York by the 1990s. Having a barge opposite the building would be a proper connection to that heritage.

However, the report notes:

North Street gardens was discounted as it would involve significant structures including substantial gangways in order to deal with the 4.5 metre height difference between water level and North Street. The costs of this was deemed to be prohibitive as well as the difficulties of dealing with accessible access.

If it’s just about cost then perhaps that could be overcome. But if this application is approved by councillors then it won’t need to be, and the Arts Barge Project can proceed with bringing Selby Tony to Tower Gardens.

More information

The council’s planning committee meeting where the issue will be discussed can be watched via the webcast ( from 4.30pm Thursday 16 February or via the council’s YouTube channel. More details of the meeting can be found on this link, and the planning application documents are on this link.

Selby Tony (Arts Barge) in the Foss Basin, May 2016 (2)

Update, 17 Feb

Despite the recommendation for refusal, the planning application was approved at yesterday’s meeting, so the Arts Barge Project now has the planning permission for the mooring at Tower Gardens.

16 Feb planning meeting on YouTube

It was a long discussion, covering all aspects and with a range of views. Part of a long meeting, lasting over four and a half hours.

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