JUdgement reserved over visitor centre plans for Clifford’s Tower in York

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Campaigners opposed to a plan to build a visitor centre at one of the best known historical monuments in northern England will have to wait for a decision in their legal challenge.

English Heritage wants to build a centre below the 13th-century Clifford’s Tower, in York, at the base of its green motte, which features in countless images of the city.

Last year, York City Council approved the plan for a gift shop and interpretation centre, which also includes new stairs up to the castle and a range of improved visitor features inside the keep, but this decision has been challenged by a group of local residents led by independent city councillor Johnny Hayes.

The judicial review hearing forced by Mr Hayes was held on Wednesday in the High Court in Leeds but, after a day of detailed argument about planning law, the judge, Mr Justice Kerr, announced he would reserve his judgment.

The judge told the court his role is not to decide on the merits of the planning application itself but to assess whether the planning law was correctly applied.

He said the controversy has “sharply divided local opinion” and that “the castle is of enormous importance to everybody” but he stressed that the merits of the council’s decision have “nothing to do with the issues I have to decide”.

The planned centre will feature a gift shop and interpretation centre and will require the excavation of part of the base of the motte - the green mound under the tower.

Planning officials have pointed out that the bottom of the motte used to end with a retaining wall until the 1930s and the very bottom section, to be removed, has therefore only been there for 80 years.

Mr Hayes, who was at court on Wednesday, has raised money for the judicial review bid through a crowdfunding site after more than 3,000 people signed a petition against the development.

His barrister, Anthony Crean QC, argued that planning officers had misinterpreted planning guidelines when they reported to councillors ahead of last year’s decision.

But David Elvin QC, for York City Council, said that the officers’ interpretation had been correct and, even if they had been wrong, it is unlikely to have had an effect on the eventual outcome.

Emma Dring, for English Heritage, said her client supported the council’s submissions.

Clifford’s Tower is the last remaining part of York Castle, which was once the focus of royal power in the north of England.

In 1190 it was the site of one of the most notorious incidents in English history when about 150 Jews were massacred after taking refuge in the tower.