In 2015 a group of York residents saw the potential to transform a disused building for community use. This wasn’t just any old building though, it was a Grade I listed tower from 1490 commissioned by Richard III.

The brick built Red Tower is part of the City’s medieval walls and originally ordered to improve the city’s defences. It was built as a watchtower, ultimately ending up in City of York Council’s ownership.

The tower has been repaired many times over history, surviving a murder mystery, civil war, use as a stable, Victorian reconstruction and 20th century disuse.

Volunteers from the Red Tower project first got in touch with Locality and discussed their vision to bring the building to life for community use as a welcoming and inclusive space.

Jonathan Sharman, Imelda Havers and Simon Perry from the CIC

Remodelling a Grade I listed building

It was quite some vision given the lack of windows, electricity, running water, lights or heating, coupled with the likely constraints of remodelling a protected building. The tower and the ambitious plans featured as a visit on a walking tour of York’s city walls at the Locality 2016 convention.

The Red Tower project team started running pop-up café events and getting people interested in the building. The project became part of the Locality run, and (as was then) Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) Community Ownership and Management of Assets (COMA) programme, which was being led locally by City of York Council.

Community activities at the Red Tower

This unlocked feasibility funding for professional architects, surveyors and project managers to gauge how to renovate the building. It also cemented the groups credibility with York City Council, building a strong working relationship.

Floods of Christmas 2015 saw water enter the tower well above waist height.

The Red Tower, flooded in 2015. The water has risen to waist height.

The chalk line is still visible as a reminder. This changed the specification for the architects who now had to design in flood resilience, including flood proof materials, raised electrical units and appropriate flooring.

Creating a space for the future

The team secured a thirty-year lease from City of York Council in 2017, gained planning permission and secured capital funding. Work started at the end of 2017 and was completed quickly by February 2018, creating a ground floor café catering space, a toilet, a new glass staircase, insulated roof, new windows and upstairs meeting space.

They have really transformed the building to a beautiful usable space. Financial support has come from City of York Council, Yorventure (Landfill Communities Fund) and 2 Ridings Community Foundation.

Pending the installation of audio visual equipment and furnishings, the building will open for bookings and regular use by community groups and private or commercial hires. It will also be a base for community activities for the Red Tower York Community Interest Company who will run the building.

Several images stitched together showing meeting space in the building.

Becoming self-sustaining

The business plan is a self-sustaining community asset, creating a ‘magical space for residents and visitors to enjoy’. It will draw in booking fees to cover running costs and provide outreach activities to the local community, as well as preserving a local heritage asset.

The Upstairs meeting room at the Red Tower

The tower is well positioned in the city to generate income and contribute long term social value. There is passing tourist trade, a large student population, lots of local housing and potential for community groups to use the space.

The Red Tower shows what can be possible when local people have a clear vision, enthusiasm and determination to achieve something special. The team built strong relationships including with Locality and the council, showed support for their plans and had a supportive environment from their local council.

What really accelerated their plans was a relatively small amount of feasibility funding that showed how it could all be possible. With hard work the team has saved a local space for common community ownership in York. Here’s to the next 500 years!