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Published by the Society in the Ripon Gazette, 26th June 2009
Ripon needs to try harder, says David Winpenny, Chairman of Ripon Civic Society, as a national survey of Conservation Areas ignores the city.

This week there was as piece of good(ish) news for Ripon. The city’s Conservation Area does not appear on English Heritage’s newly-published list of those ‘at risk of neglect, decay or damaging change.’

The new list, published for the first time as part of English Heritage’s annual ‘Heritage at Risk’ register, has looked at the 9,300 Conservation Areas in England that have been designated by local councils to protect their special character and appearance. The conclusions are not entirely encouraging. One Conservation Area in every seven is not in good health, and, says the register, ‘many more give cause for concern.’

The fact that Ripon (and Harrogate Borough Council area as a whole) has escaped the pointing finger may not be as happy an outcome as it appears. Harrogate, which is responsible for Ripon’s Conservation Area, was one of 25 per cent of local authorities that did not respond to the survey questionnaire sent out by English Heritage. So the city’s non-appearance does not necessarily mean that all is sweetness and light, and that there is nothing to threaten the Conservation Area that encompasses the historic core of Ripon. A look at the checklist of threats identified by English Heritage will ring bells with many people in the city.

Topping the list is plastic windows and doors – 83 per cent of conservation areas in England are affected (or infested?) by replacement of more-traditional and visually more-acceptable timber versions. Poorly-maintained roads and pavements come next with 60 per cent, followed by street clutter (45 per cent). Loss of front garden walls, fences and hedges (usually to create parking spaces) total 43 per cent and then, with 38 per cent, unsightly satellite dishes. Just over a third of Conservation Areas suffer from ‘the effects of traffic calming or traffic management and from alterations to the fronts, roofs and chimneys of buildings.’ Unsympathetic extensions, the impact of advertisements and neglected green spaces complete the list.

It is not hard to find examples of all these threats in Ripon, even if the quantity of them falls below the bar that English Heritage has set for inclusion on the ‘Heritage at Risk’ register. Replacement windows and doors are certainly rife – and almost always their installation is unnecessary. The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) says that householders should resist the temptation to replace old doors because doing so ‘can significantly reduce the character and authenticity of a building. Existing doors can frequently be repaired and, if necessary, upgraded for better security or draught-proofing. Replacement is a last resort, and should usually be like-for-like in terms of style and materials.’ The Society also says that ‘windows in the majority of old buildings can be upgraded for better draught-proofing, thermal insulation, noise control or security’; there is advice on the SPAB website (www.spab.org.uk) on how to do so.

There are powers available to local authorities to combat this, and the top priority for English Heritage is to get local authorities to make use of what are called Article 4 Directions. All local authorities have the power to use these – they can declare an area as coming under the control of Article 4 and require that householders do not use plastic windows and doors – and do not give their front gardens to parking, for example. There is only one small area in Harrogate Borough that is currently subject to an Article 4 Direction; it is not in Ripon.

English Heritage is also calling for council departments to take better care of public areas – pavements and green areas – as well as buildings themselves. We are all aware of the problems of Ripon’s streets, both in terms of road and pavement surfaces and of their cleanliness; the Retail Forum of Ripon City Partnership has recently been in correspondence with Harrogate Borough Council on this subject.

Conservation Areas are not about conserving things solely for the sake of it, nor do they indicate a desire to interfere with the belief that an Englishman’s home is his castle and what he does with it is his own affair. With the housing market especially difficult at the moment, it is salutatory to note that 82 per cent of estate agents tell English Heritage that original features add value to a property and that three-quarters of them say that being in a well-kept conservation area enhances the price of a house.

As well as the stick of exposure that is held over back-sliding local authorities, English Heritage has introduced a carrot – awards for the best Conservation Areas. In the Yorkshire Region the winner for this year is Richmond, where Richmondshire District Council has got fully behind the Town Centre Manager and delivered real improvements both to the townscape and to the business confidence of the place.

Ripon can – and must – learn from all this. It is no good breathing a sigh of relief that we have escaped censure this time. Why should we not strive to be next year’s award winning area?

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