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Published by the Society in the Ripon Gazette, 8th May 2009
Should we allow derelict buildings to scar the city? Asks David Winpenny, Chairman of Ripon Civic Society

Dereliction. It’s a word loaded with significance. In terms of buildings it means that property has been ‘abandoned by the owner or guardian’; when applied to duties, it implies, says the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘a morally wrong or reprehensible abandonment or neglect.’

Of course, to most of us it means something rather more. It implies the results of what happens when such abandonment occurs. We all know what a derelict building looks like, even if we don’t know the strict definition of dereliction. Care has stopped, windows are broken so birds can fly in and out, gutters hang off, bricks fall away, slates slip, vegetation takes hold. All these are signs that care has been abandoned; another, perhaps more accurate, word to describe the process is dilapidation – ‘the action of falling into decay; the condition of being in ruins or in disrepair.’

Last week this column highlighted the state of the former Maltings building at Ure Bank. It is a listed building but is in a parlous state. But we don’t need to look only at the fringes of Ripon to find other examples of a complete lack of care for significant buildings; there are examples in the heart of the city, which are both listed buildings and in the Ripon Conservation Area.

The city has made great strides in the last decade to improve some areas. The wasteland that served as a bus station to the east of the Market Square has received treatment, so that the city now has a better place to wait for buses and a new shopping arcade – even if architecturally they are not up to much. More recently the waste land west of the Square has received attention, with the new supermarket building and its associated housing, and a new, properly-surfaced car park.

There must be no resting on the laurels of complacency with this scheme almost complete. There is much to do. The land that slopes down south of the Square, in the hinterland of the Town Hall, needs sorting out; there are some indications that this is beginning. Across Water Skellgate, though, there is one of the greatest areas of dereliction in the conservation area – and nothing, it seems, is being done.

Facing the bottom of High Skellgate is the former Opera House building. The facade, with its long, multi-paned windows on the first floor and three arches below, was built in 1832. Behind were the Public Rooms, where politicians met and where concerts were held; Lewis Carroll sometimes attended the concerts. By 1885 more space was needed, and behind the frontage a new, larger hall was built. It served successively as a roller-skating rink (it opened exactly a century ago, in 1909), as a cinema and as a bingo hall. It was also used occasionally for plays.

All this ended in 1976 with a large fire. Despite schemes for restoration as a community centre and as a performing arts centre, nothing has been done. It is now more than 30 years since the flames lit up Ripon’s sky. This very large building is now largely abandoned – only the antique shop that occupies the front portion saves it from being a complete eyesore from the street.

The whole of this building is listed Grade II. It is within the Ripon Conservation Area; this should be belt and braces for protection, and it should ensure that the building is looked after. Yet it is patently not. Of course, it is not the only such building in the heart of Ripon, but it is one of the biggest. Even in these straitened financial times we should be looking at protecting it and making use of it.

Statutory powers are available to local authorities to compel owners to care for their listed buildings. But the authorities are reluctant to use them, even if they are aware of the problems. Harrogate Borough Council does not have a list of protected buildings that are in a state of dereliction. Such structures will usually come to the attention of the conservation officers if a planning application is made – and if the owner is content to allow the building to crumble, that’s not likely to happen.

This is all a difficult, but not an intractable, problem. Political will, common sense, an eye to what the city needs and – something that this column often calls for – vision could help sort out this blot on the civic landscape.

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