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FEATURES - OFF THE WALL

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The Yorkshire town of Barnsley is heading for an urban rennaisance, in a rennaisance-style. Esther Leach has a look...
The Yorkshire town of Barnsley is heading for an urban rennaisance, in a rennaisance-style. Esther Leach has a look at what's in store

It was perhaps unfortunate that the story of regeneration proposals to turn Barnsley into a Tuscanesque hill town broke on April Fool's day.

'But it has got people talking,' argues Jo Savage, head of Barnsley MBC's communications department. 'We want people to realise nothing is impossible, we want to raise their expectations, their aspirations.'

Raise expectations and eyes to the sky in fact - a giant halo encircling the town caps off the Tuscan proposals.

Every household in Barnsley will receive an invitation to discuss the town's future at a three-day consultation event next week. People will have the chance to chew over ideas with experts including London-based architect Will Alsop whose initial plans for Barnsley have caused such a stir.

His startling ideas, Ms Savage says, were a way of kick-starting a major debate which will decide the town's redevelopment over the next 30 years at a cost of£150m, expected to come from Europe, the government and private investment.

Mr Alsop has suggested a 10-storey wall of shops, offices and homes reminiscent of a Tuscan hill town to encircle Barnsley. The 'lived-in wall' would allow the borough council to demolish old buildings and create a green landscape. He would also like to see 25-storey blocks of housing, a new market, as well as a lake. A halo of light above the town would be the finishing touch. It would give Barnsley its own identity and brighten grey days.

The ideas - including the halo - have already been widely discussed, including on the local football team's website, drawing generally positive comment. There is nothing in the plans, the architect says, that has not come from the desires of the people of Barnsley - he has already held a number of consultation workshops - but he is also inspired by his favourite Italian holidays.

He admitted to a local paper that he did not like Barnsley when he first arrived in March this year. 'It was a grey day and I went into a pub and thought 'Oh f**k, I've got my work cut out here.''

But he added: 'Barnsley is complex. It reminds me of Marseilles, a horrible city that has nice parts. Once you start looking around you find that it is fantastic.

Mr Alsop has an ally in council leader Steve Houghton (Lab). He feels the architect's plans should be explored and not dismissed out of hand or ridiculed.

But Mr Houghton adds: 'The public will decide the future of the town, not us. Whatever we do is constrained by money, planning and business regulations, transport rules and other regulations but it must not be constrained by our imaginations.

'It is time to be bold and brave. More of the same will not attract new shops or business to Barnsley. People are fed up with the centre being dominated by pubs and clubs and low-grade outlets. We cannot build a future on them.' Mr Houghton says the town must move on from its proud coal mining heritage and build on one of its important social and economic strengths - its history as a market town.

But, he says, civic leaders want to create a completely new concept of market town which means a radical rethink of existing approaches to regeneration.

The new centre of Barnsley, he argues, has not only to create confidence in the town and its future but also inspire its young people and reassure them that they have a future in the town.

'It won't be easy or without risk, but we need to have high ambitions,' he adds.

Mr Alsop also has the support of David Kennedy, the council's development director, who says: 'We wanted the wow factor and he has found it.'

Even so, a further seven specialists have been invited to come up with their own plans for Barnsley and all will be revealed on May 9 to 11 at the Falcon Centre in the town.

Barnsley is one of six Yorkshire towns (the others are Doncaster, Grimsby, Halifax, Huddersfield and Scarborough) to undergo an 'urban renaissance' led by the regional development agency, Yorkshire Forward. It has spent£1m commissioning experts from around the world to come up with radical answers to the region's regeneration problems. It is the agency's response to the government's urban white paper of 2000 which took the responsibility of revitalising small towns away from London.

Advertisements were placed across Europe to help create a pioneering panel of leading urban renaissance experts including architects, planners and environmental designers to draw up high quality plans for town and city centres over the next two years. The panel, thought to be the first in the country, will work with councils, says Alan Simpson, head of Yorkshire Forward's urban renaissance programme.

'The aim is to enhance the ability of our town and city centres to attract inward investment, sustainable businesses and provide vibrant quality places to live,' says Mr Simpson. 'We need not trade solely on our rural attractions and historic interest but could become the catalyst for high-quality, integrated urban design from the east coast to the Pennines.

'A truly world-class region demands world-class urban centres right across the place, not as isolated flagship projects accessible only by a few lucky communities.'

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