'As our town centre and historic buildings crumble, our identity crumbles with it.' Doncaster campaigner and deputy leader of the Yorkshire Party, Chris Whitwood, argues that celebrating our past is key to investing in our future.
“Doncaster is clean and well built. Among the principal buildings are the new Town Hall and Mansion House, and Markets.” Thus is Doncaster described in Bradshaw’s 1863 Descriptive Railway Hand-Book - the Victorian railway guide, re-popularised by Michael Portillo’s series Great British Railway Journeys.
The Doncaster Bradshaw describes is - like many towns and cities across Yorkshire at the time - one of increasing wealth, confidence and prosperity. A thriving market town with a sense of its own destiny. Over the following half century, this centre of commerce became a powerhouse of the nation; home to the Doncaster Cup (the oldest continuing regulated horse race in the world) and the Plant, which grew to manufacture the most famous and the fastest locomotives in history.
It is easy to view the past through rose tinted spectacles. Though whilst there was inequality and, in places, appalling poverty, there was also aspiration, determination and drive, which in turn created visible signs of civic pride.
Fast-forward 150 years and there is a stark contrast. Decades of neglect have taken their toll on a once great town; the buzz of a thriving market dwindles as shoppers are lured elsewhere and racegoers are bused around, not drawn through, the town centre. Historic buildings - more than mere architectural trinkets - are reminders of Doncaster’s rich heritage, symbolic of the people.
Doncaster's Grand Theatre, opened in 1899, now left to crumble.
Like many places in South Yorkshire, there is a sense of abandonment. Neglect.
Doncaster Council are complicit. There are many absentee landlords. Others Doncaster companies, perhaps most notably Lazarus Properties, who own vast swathes of South Yorkshire, should be encouraged to take a more visibly proactive role in restoring the historic buildings in our town centre, but there is a sense among many residents that they seem content to let the town die. As our town centre and historic buildings crumble, our identity crumbles with it.
DMBC’s town centre masterplan is welcome. To simply replace the old with trite and tidy redevelopments would sacrifice part of what makes our town unique and it is pleasing that Doncaster’s Grand Theatre - at present unceremoniously sandwiched between supermarket and station - is to become a focal point. Nevertheless, it is also worth noting that this Grade II listed landmark had to wait two decades, untouched, to be promised a new lease of life.
Other buildings face a less certain fate. The old Girls High School has been reduced to a mere facade; Pillar House on South Parade, once host to the Prince Regent, is now unoccupied but for occasional squatters; and the decision to relocate the Post Office (in a move symbolic of high street decline) from the town centre to the Frenchgate casts doubt over the future of Priory Place.
One does not have to look far to see evidence of Doncaster’s former glory. By ensuring new investment goes hand-in-hand with a celebration of the past we can make Doncaster great again. To achieve this, we must restore what we have, revive what we have lost and celebrate our past to invest in our future.
Note: Published in the Daily Mail - 'Our Cities Will Have a Dim Future Unless We Save Treasures like This' on Friday 3rd March 2017.