The civic movement in England: what is it, why should I care and how do I engage?

Did you know the first civic society was set up in the 1940s? Across the country there are hundreds of civic societies; fiercely independent organisations aiming to work with local people and authorities to better the places we live, shop and work in. They champion the history and heritage of the places they represent, while working to improve life there. Some maintain local archives and most have a blue plaque scheme to honour notable locals and their achievements through history. They give a voice to the people and work with the local authorities. This is the civic movement.

What have they ever done for us?

In the 1960s, not long after they were established, the Wakefield Civic Society stepped in to prevent part of St. John's Square from being demolished, and then led a project to improve the appearance of the houses there. St. John's Square is home to elegant three-storey late Georgian terraces and the late 18th century Church of St. John the Baptist. In May 1968, it was designated a conservation area. Had the demolition not been stopped by the Wakefield Civic Society, the whole area may have been lost in the decades since.

Their focus now is on encouraging debate on the future of the city centre, promoting the architectural legacy and encouraging people to think about good design.

A three storey Georgian building in the north side of Saint john's Square, Wakefield.
St John's Square, Wakefield - north side.
Copyright Stephen Craven and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

In 2008, the Pontefract Civic Society worked with the Grand Central Chief Operating Officer, including inviting them for a tour of the town. Two years later, in 2010, the line from Bradford to London was extended to Pontefract. Thanks to the efforts of the Pontefract Civic Society, Pontefract has a direct rail connection to London.

In 2016, they delivered the Magna Carta monument in Pontefract to celebrate the part our town played in the signing of the Magna Carta (read: Great Charter) by King John of England at Runnymede, near Windsor, on 15th June 1215.

Pontefract was announced by Welcome to Yorkshire as the Best Dressed Town in the 2019 Tour de Yorkshire. This can be attributed to Pontefract Civic Society's efforts to organise the town's decoration efforts with local businesses and people.

So, why should you care?

The civic movement directly affects the future of this country and is headed by a population of mostly older men. Younger people are not represented, and we should be. The future of civic societies also rely on the recruitment of young people.

In 2019, I attended a quarterly meeting of civic societies across Yorkshire and the Humber that was hosted by Pontefract Civic Society. You can read more about that visit on the Pontefract Civic Society website. It was a few hours long, talking about a lot of topics. It was important stuff, but there was a lot more men than women and I was the only person there around my age. At the end, when I was preparing to leave, I was approached by an elderly gentleman. He had another gentleman with him who seemed to be looking after him. He was very polite, and then he told me,

"I won't be here in ten years."

I definitely didn't know what to say to that! He told me to look around the room. He told me that most of the people here won't be here in another thirty years, and that I need to get more young people like myself involved.

So here it is. You should care because something as important as the civic societies don't have people to represent us, and no one ready to keep it going in the future. It also doesn't hurt career-wise; you can gain valuable experience and employers love volunteers.

What can you do?

Join your local civic society. Become a member, reach out and offer to volunteer. Get involved with the society and let your voice be heard.

I volunteer for the Pontefract Civic Society, where I have made the Pontefract Blue Plaque Guide, Pontefract Town Hall History leaflet, and a poster for the Society's work with a local author (amongst other design projects). I've published some of their articles on their website, collated their monthly newsletter, and given advice on their web presence and content strategy.

Any skill set is welcome.

Some people help decorate the town for events, help organise said events and help with the advertisement of them. You can get involved in any of the sub-groups, such as the Rail Group who campaign for better rail between the three stations at Pontefract.

Look up the Society near you and send them a message asking how you can get involved. Get your friends involved! We all should be invested in our local communities and civic societies are probably the best way to gain a meaningful platform to do that.

A tunnel wall spray painted with the words 'Love your community'.
Photo by Mike Erskine on Unsplash.

Wrapping up.

Thank you to Paul Cartwright of Pontefract Civic Society and Kevin Trickett MBE of Wakefield Civic Society for speaking with me about their societies' achievements. You've both been really helpful.

I want to create a discussion about this, so please follow me on Twitter and tell me what you think with the hashtag #YoungCivic.