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Published by the Society in the Ripon Gazette, 24th July 2009
Despite the loss of the Civic Trust, writes David Winpenny, Chairman of Ripon Civic Society, there is a still strong support for the causes it championed – and hope for the future.

In April this year the Civic Trust in England, founded by Duncan Sandys in 1957 went into administration.

The reasons for the collapse of the Trust, which was the umbrella body of more than 750 Civic Societies around the country, as well as running nationally-recognised Awards for buildings and open spaces, were complicated, as so often with these matters, but come down to lack of resources from central and local government in a time of recession.

The loss of the Civic Trust does not directly affect Ripon Civic Society, which is an independent charity. The Society can – and does! – continue to function without the Trust. We have our own Awards, and we continue to act as a watchdog for the local environment. We have the support of lots of local people – and we are happy to accept criticism, too, as long as the critics are thinking carefully about what they say, and have listened to our point of view.

But it is good to have support from other groups outside the city. Ripon Civic Society is part of the Yorkshire and Humberside Association of Civic Societies (YHACS), which brings representatives of Societies from all over the region together in regular meetings, where they learn about each other’s experiences, pick up new ideas and generally compare notes. YHACS also promotes a regular Civic Societies’ Week that encourages them to make a special effort to promote themselves in the local area. Last year, Ripon Civic Society won an award from YHACS for its opinion survey in the city during Civic Societies’ Week; this year our Marquess of Ripon Centenary event on 9 July and our market stall in the Square on 11 July have been part of our Civic Societies’ Week efforts.

Yet even this, valuable though it is, may not be enough. One of the strengths of the Civic Trust was its ability to act as a voice of all the grassroots opinion represented by the Civic Societies, and to articulate concerns and opinions at the highest level. It helped to share experience and promote the best ways of working on planning and heritage matters, and was a strong advocate of the reform of how we protect our heritage. It also negotiated some services to which local Civic Societies were able to have access, including insurance.

More publically, the Civic Trust administered the national Heritage Open Days, when buildings not usually accessible to the public were encouraged to throw open their doors to visitors. The Open Days were run by local people in their local areas, but having a national body to assist and provide publicity was useful.

All these were important to the care of our local and national environment. And as the Chief Executive of the Town and Country Planning Association wrote, ‘Community bodies often contain the seeds of the most successful regeneration and development projects – in a recession we must ensure the power and voice of the community in development is not driven out of the debate. The closure of the Civic Trust is a major loss to the charitable sector, one which deserves support if it is to deliver the quality we want to see in our towns and cities.’

All, though, is not lost. The Civic Trust Awards have been kept alive by a new initiative, and the Heritage Open Days have found a natural home with English Heritage, which is now promoting this year’s event, in mid-September. As part of this, Ripon Civic Society will be opening the Gazebo off Blossomgate on Sunday 13 September from 2.00 pm to 4.00 pm, and has arranged with the De Grey and Ripon Lodge to open the Masonic Hall in Water Skellgate at the same time.

And, phoenix-like, there is a new national voice for Civic Societies springing up, too. The Civic Society Initiative (CSI) will offer expertise in planning and other matters to support the Societies, and will lobby in the corridors of power. This is an initiative that is coming from the Societies themselves, and it is backed by a number of important national bodies, including the National Trust, which is funding a new post for a director for the first year. The initiative has the support of Griff Rhys Jones, former President of the Civic Trust, who is leading a campaign to raise funding for the new organisation.

So, even as Ripon Civic Society pursues its aims within the city, we know that there are other groups like YHACS and the new CSI which are there to support us and to offer the benefits of their experience – and we can share our successes and problems with them. Although the demise of the Civic Trust is to be regretted, the movement that it represented is still strong.

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