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Published by the Society in the Ripon Gazette, 13th January 2009

How is the recession affecting the look of Ripon? And when it’s over, in what sort of shape will the city find itself, asks David Winpenny, Chairman of Ripon Civic Society.

We all know that it’s a very difficult time for retailers. Lending is tighter (or sometimes non-existent) credit is squeezed or unavailable and customers are much more circumspect with their money. Suppliers want faster payment – but creditors can be slow in coughing up. And, of course, cold and snowy weather doesn’t help.

So it is not surprising that some local retailers decide that they can no longer sustain their business and are forced to close. When it comes to the larger chain stores, Ripon is at the mercy of people far away, who look not at the local impact that a closure will have on a community, but at what these days always seems to be called ‘the bottom line’.

Woolworths, one of the largest stores in the city in terms of floor space, has already gone – killed off in its 99th year by powers far away from Ripon, but having a big impact on our streets. Marks & Spencer’s Simply Food is going. There may well be others, both large and small.

This series of columns began by looking at shop fronts in the city, and encouraging retailers to take pride in them. Some (not enough) progress was made – but now we have been taken over by events, and we are finding our streets being more and more gap-toothed by empty retail premises. It may be that those that are still with us find there is little spare cash to spend on smartening up their fascias. That may, of course, be a false economy; we can argue that a smart front is more attractive to customers than a shabby facade.

Empty shops, though, pose more of a visual problem. Not only do they look neglected – you have only to glance through the windows of the former Woolworth’s building to see that – but they also have a psychological effect on shoppers. If a place is seen to be neglected, the impression is given that it is not thriving – and if it’s not thriving, then people will look elsewhere.

What is to be done if Ripon is not to decline further into the ghost town that some other towns of similar size are already approaching? How do we make a visit to Ripon to shop or to visit an attractive experience, even while we pass through the valley of the shadow of depression?

There are no easy answers. We know that there are already groups in Ripon who are working hard to attract more visitors, believing, rightly, that we should be able to attract more people to share the glories of the city. We need to be sure that when they come we present the best face to them.

The southern end of the Market Square is at least free of parked cars, so there is now breathing space in the city centre. A recent study of towns and cities has shown that every 14 square metres of space reclaimed from car parking attracts one extra visitor. This is a national average; we could plausibly argue that when a place is as attractive and so full of history as Ripon, the number attracted would be greater. So open space is important.

Might there also be value in producing a series of large, eye-catching posters to place in the windows of empty shops, to hide the dereliction behind them and to make the streets look more attractive? Perhaps it is papering over the cracks to do this – but until we can find the mortar to fill them, it would help the look of the city. And shopkeepers could make their window displays more fun. Two in North Street are doing so: the colourful displays in the Tutto Bello handbag shop and the witty skeleton tableaux at Ripon Osteopathy lift the spirits.

And we can all play our part in helping the retailers to survive. Shop locally and encourage other people to do so, too. And be positive about Ripon. We all like a good grumble, but denigrating the city will do it no good. There are so many good things about the city, and we need to celebrate them.
And when we come out of this recession? There is already a tide of opinion that recognises that we need a fresh look at the city and its infrastructure – including roads, parking and housing. The discussions are already underway. Positive thinking now and in the future can see Ripon emerging better and more prosperous – but we all need to work at it.

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