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AS OTHERS SEE US?

Published by the Society in the Ripon Gazette, 27th March 2009
The business seminar held at the Spa Hotel on Friday of last week brought a good consensus about possible ways forward for Ripon – but once again it highlighted the need for some action to be taken to help the city improve its looks.

Shop fronts were the first subject that this column tackled, 18 months ago. It drew attention to the need for retail premises to present a smart facade to their customers, and named some of the worst examples. Since then there has been some progress – but also some failures to act and, with the recession biting, more examples of neglect.

One of the speakers at the seminar was Andrew Ashenden, who resurrected Marylebone High Street in London as a premier shopping destination, and who has given his time to study and advise Ripon on its future. Nearly everything he said about what Ripon needs rang true – and so was his observation, tactfully put but no less damning, that the city needs to be more attractive. He particularly mentioned the Market Square as looking tired and in need of smartening up. He – and other contributors – pointed out that when the new Booths store opens in the summer, the city can expect it to attract shoppers from some distance. They may enjoy their shopping experience in Booths, but is the city likely to entice them to visit other parts and to spend their money in other shops?

Robert Burns’ wish ‘O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us/To see oursels as others see us!’ is particularly appropriate here. What will these new shoppers see – what do our first-time visitors already see – when they venture to the city centre?

The Market Square itself is of historical significance, and so is the obelisk. And while the buildings surrounding it, with the exception of the Town Hall and of the Wakeman’s House, are not particularly striking, the ensemble is imposing enough. It is when visitors start to look at details that disappointment may begin. Of course there are some smart premises, and some that have smartened themselves up in recent months. But there remain particular problems – notably the facade of W H Smith, which has long been an ungratifying spectacle of peeling paint and scruffy lettering. Not much better is the facade of Burton’s on the opposite side. Both, significantly, are part of national chains – though that should be no excuse for neglect.

For visitors who leave the Square and head down Kirkgate towards the cathedral, worse is in store. While the pizza and kebab shop has now opened – and at least looks a little better than it did 18 months ago – its neighbour, the former FADs store has deteriorated significantly. This is a large and important site and its current disgraceful neglect should be a cause for concern for everyone – including the owners of the premises.

One of the recommendations Mr Ashenden made was that Ripon urgently needs a comprehensive survey of who owns what property in the city centre – as he rightly pointed out, if owners don’t support action to improve the city, it will fail. There is a need, too, for some greater political will to tackle problems. There are powers available to local authorities, but, for whatever reason – inertia, lack of funds, lack of staff, an ostrich-like refusal to see problems – they do not use them. It’s even possible to require shops (even national chains) to conform to rules about the way their facades look. We don’t have to have the same clone look as everywhere else.

Fortunately, there are some shops in Ripon that have given thought to the face they present to the public. It is not difficult to look smart; take, for example, two adjacent shops in Kirkgate, kitchen designers Brandazzi, and the photographers, Muse. There’s nothing flashy about them; they are painted a dark colour and have simple lettering, but both are smart and attractive. In North Street (next door to the decaying facade that was Abbotts’ shop, handbag shop Tutto Bello is just as simple – a cream painted facade, with a logo on the window and imaginative displays. It can be done.

Latest figures show that 8.8 per cent of Ripon’s shop units are empty – 20 out of 228. We need action now to make the empty units look as attractive as possible and to smarten others up to make the most of the city. Think about it next time you’re in town; wouldn’t you be happier to shop there if the place was more attractive. It could easily be!

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