Find one badly rundown mining town; set up a team of regeneration agencies, architects and council; ask the straight-talking locals what they want to happen. Then stick a TV camera in front of the lot … and watch.
Wouldn’t you love to have been a fly on the wall when Alex de Rijke stood up in front of an audience of no-nonsense Castleford residents and told them that he wanted to cover their market stalls with an enormous portable Pringle? Or when Sean Griffiths of FAT Architecture tried to excite the same audience with his plans to install a beach and a floating Chinese restaurant on the River Aire – until recently, the home of much of West Yorkshire’s industrial effluent.

Well, you’re in luck – you can be that fly. Castleford, in West Yorkshire, or “Cas” as it is known to locals, is to be the subject of a television series to be produced by Channel 4 and Talkback Productions. More ambitious than most reality TV shows, The Castleford Project aims to film the regeneration of an entire town. To provide the necessary element of sadism, in the first programme a group of architects take turns to present their concepts to an audience of locals, who then vote off the ones they don’t like. Of the architects who took part, Sarah Wigglesworth, Allen Tod and McDowell & Benedetti were saved from eviction, whereas Edward Cullinan, de Rijke Marsh Morgan and FAT went off for the early shower.

The man in charge of co-ordinating the scheme

is David Barrie, an executive producer with Talkback Productions. If you imagine him as a cynical media reptile aiming to advance his career by stitching up an ailing former mining town, then think again. Barrie really cares about the place. No, honestly. He has his office in the town and is up there three days a week. All the problems of running nine major regeneration projects – and filming it – are his.

But does this amount to anything more than Changing Rooms applied to an entire city? “People can call it a makeover but that’s really just bollocks,” Barrie says tersely. “All the projects here pre-dated the television show. We’re doing absolutely loads of community consultation to capture it as a social experience.”

All the same, Barrie is in a tricky situation. He draws his salary from both Talkback and Wakefield council, and so he is the only person in the whole enterprise who wants a rejuvenated Castleford and a cracking TV show. He faces a fight on three fronts. He’s got the public hassling him for not moving the project on more quickly. He’s got the council holding him back from going too fast. And he’s got to keep tabs on six Talkback employees in Wakefield who follow the main players around hoping to record some interesting exchanges. “The Channel 4 guys try to find the edges,” he says. “That’s what journalists do – I’m one myself.”

Barrie made his name producing highbrow programmes such as Omnibus and The Late Show,

where disagreements were mostly concerned with the application of Cartesian dualism to the early work of David Hockney. Now he gets shouted at in community meetings. A bit. Actually, the townfolk are generally supportive. Castleford beat off four other rundown towns to secure the programme partly because it had projects that were already going ahead but also because of the strength of community support.

Nor has Barrie had to work alone. The Castleford Project has been supported by Wakefield council, English Partnerships, Yorkshire Forward, Eastern Wakefield Primary Care Trust, local environmental charity Groundwork Wakefield and The Coalfields Regeneration Trust.

It’s very difficult to go from what people want to what’s actually going to happen

David Barrie, executive producer

Even so, Barrie is wearily familiar with the problems that afflict the construction industry. “It’s very difficult to go from what people want to what’s actually going to happen,” he says. A good example is a floating bridge, suggested by McDowell & Benedetti, which has required a great deal of preparatory work. “By the time the programme goes out, it will be the best part of three years since we started. There’s all sorts of compulsory purchase and land issues and section 106s to negotiate.

“The good thing about people round here is they speak their minds,” he adds. “At the town meetings they say things like, ‘You’ve been working on this bridge for eight months and nothing’s happened. What’s going on?’ and I’m there saying, ‘Give me a break: it’s got to stand up for 120 years and it’s your money’.”

The centrepiece of the town’s regeneration will be the project to transform the river front and build the bridge to connect the town to “the island”, a self-contained community on the other side of the River Aire. However, some of the “islanders” across the river want nothing to do with the bridge and the increased parking it will bring. Others are more positive. We drive over to visit local resident Wendy Rayner, a forceful personality tipped to be a star of the programme.

Wendy is hopeful that something will happen. “Everybody is for these ideas but our council’s not very good at getting its finger out,” she says. “I am 61 this month and we’ve been waiting for a new library and museum since I was in the infants’ school. If this bridge thing comes off I hope to God I see it before I get my wooden jacket, you know what I mean?”

Wendy’s family goes back 170 years living in the same street. But she shares the progressive views of the programme makers. “I’d like to see Castleford put on the map,” she says. “Loads of people were put out of work around here. Nobody wants to go back to what it was – we have grass now where it used to be mucky.”

There are limits, though. Wendy doesn’t take kindly to media types messing about with her home town. And she has an implacable and slightly bizarre hatred of the town’s most famous son, the sculptor Henry Moore, because he left and never returned. She even spits on the ground every time she passes the Henry Moore surgery.

She was also one of the residents to take a dim view of the more outlandish ideas. “We wanted something to comply with the history of the place, not something wacky,” she declares. “If they come up with owt wacky, they’ll be whacked on the heads.”

Because of this, the designs that did get the nod are challenging and inventive. Castleford resident Rita Davison works with the project to regenerate a disused allotment in Cutsyke, on the outskirts of town. The idea here is to turn the space into a children’s play area, with a “play forest” designed by Allen Tod Architects. The concept links stylish design with an awareness of what a nine-year-old might find fun.

If they come up with owt wacky they’ll be whacked on the heads

Wendy Rayner, resident

Rita, who is about as shy and retiring as Wendy, founded the Cutsyke Community Group four years ago, well before the cameras arrived. The project is about to go in for planning and the group has helped secure the £250,000 funding.

Rita seems genuinely enthusiastic. “We’ve got to realise it’s a programme to be aired on telly,” she concedes.

“But hopefully it’ll show people that regeneration can take place in your area if you get together.”

The presence of Channel 4 took a bit of getting used to for Rita, who describes herself as “not very photogenic”. “Some people in the group don’t like it,” she says. “The first time the camera bloke came for me I said I’d kneecap him if he filmed me.”

Most Castleford residents still retain this feisty attitude. A lot of people roaming around Carlton Street, the long thoroughfare that makes up much of the town, had never even heard of the project. Or if they had, they instinctively thought it wouldn’t work. This wariness is understandable: a town that lost 90% of its mining jobs and has no schooling beyond 16 does not automatically assume that architects and TV companies constitute salvation.

Barrie seems wary of predicting unqualified success. “This project lives or dies on whether it can deliver,” he says. “If it doesn’t deliver then the programme will have to tell a story of how it didn’t work.”

There’s potential, though. Cas residents need to see something built, or themselves on the television, before they see the project as a winner. But if all the projects get moving, the town could start the journey back to prosperity and begin to be worthy of its community. Barrie might even be seen as the Saviour of Castleford. If not, then Wendy Rayner may have some spare spit.

Cas folk talk straight

1 (l-r) Brian Hawes, 53;
Thomas Hallas, 81;
Ronald Knowles, 82;
Horace Bridges, 71.

BH: “Well, it’s definitely an improvement. They’ve done Pontefract, it’s about time they did something here. We’ve been waiting for a library for ages.”

HB: “Castleford’s bloody one half of what it used to be. There’s no character in the new market. The old town down there used to be all busy. That’s all finished now.”

RK: “We saw the cameras hanging around Silvestrey’s down the road. I said to them: ‘Why don’t you come over here and talk to some good looking guys?’”

Cas folk talk straight

2 Pat Walker, 56, local trader. Lived in Castleford for 27 years.

“We need a boost. It’s a good town, it’s a shame what’s happened. My husband has been along [to the town hall meetings], and all the traders are looking forward to it.
All the ideas are good.”

Cas folk talk straight

3 Richard Causier, 16, Castleford Tigers RLFC supporter.
“It’s a good idea. There’s not much to do round here; not many places to go out. Most people go to Pontefract to go out. It’d be good to make Cas somewhere you’d choose to go.”

The people’s projects

In July 2003, The Castleford Project ran a series of public meetings and events in the town to find out what projects and issues were of concern to local people. More than 1000 people took part and identified priority projects that they felt were important to the future of the town. As a result, The Castleford Project adopted the following schemes:

1 Cutsyke Adventure Park
Where: On the edge of Castleford, in collaboration with Cutsyke Community Group
What: Plan to redevelop disused allotment into a children’s play area with a “play forest”
Architect: Simon Gedye, Allen Tod Architects and Estelle Warren Landscape Architects
Status: About to go in for planning

2 Carlton Square and market stalls
Where: Market area in the town centre
What: Relocate outdoor market, refurbish main square, introduce new stalls
Architect: Hudson Associates, London
Status: Yet to go in for planning

3 Tittle Cott Bridge
Where: Other side of covered market from central Castleford
What: Renovate narrow pass under the bridge to make it more welcoming
Architect: DSDH Architects, London
Status: Yet to go in for planning

4 River crossing
Where: There is only one bridge crossing the River Aire. People want a crossing that allows access on foot and cycle
What: Plan for a floating bridge
Architect: McDowell & Benedetti, London
Status: Feasibility studies being undertaken to ascertain whether bridge should be floating or fixed

5 Riverfront masterplan
Where: Liaising with the bridge area, along the sides of the River Aire
What: Study to integrate the town with the river, unlocking its potential for riverside uses
Architect: Sarah Wigglesworth
Status: Ongoing

New Fryston
Where: Outskirts of Castleford
What: Relandscape the village green so it can sustain the needs of the local population
Architect: Martha Schwarz
Status: In for planning

The Green, Ferry Fryston
Where: Outskirts of Castleford
What: Turn derelict landscape into well-designed public space
Architect: Parklife
Status: About to enter planning

Wilson Street area
Where: West of the town centre
What: Make area safe from traffic and crime; improve sites left redundant by selective demolition of terraced housing
Architect: Allen Tod Architecture
Status: About to enter planning