In the week of Ripon Civic Society’s AGM, its Chairman David Winpenny considers its value – and its values.
Once in a while, it does no harm to take a look at ourselves and re-examine our values. In advance of the Civic Society’s Annual General Meeting this week, the Society’s committee decided to ask its members why they joined the society and whether its membership has lived up to expectations – as well as some other questions about members’ level of involvement and about the programme of talks and visits that the Society organises.
As with any survey, the responses are from those with the most enthusiasm or with a particular axe to grind. Nevertheless, there was an encouraging response, with a good percentage of members letting the Society know what they thought.
To the question ‘Why did you join Ripon Civic Society?’ there was a range of answers. They included ‘interested in architecture and conservation’, ‘caring about the city and its buildings’, ‘to learn more about the city’, ‘to be kept informed about what’s going on’ and ‘to have some influence in what happens in Ripon.’ Perhaps none of this is unexpected, but the responses indicate a keenness to be involved in the city’s well-being and in protecting its historic fabric.
The nest question was more contentious; ‘Has your membership lived up to expectations?’ Fortunately for the committee’s collective blood pressure, no one said ‘No’. Most of the respondents just ticked Yes, but others were more forthcoming. One said that the ‘meetings are informative, good atmosphere.’ Another said that the Society is ‘effective and on the ball’. The most candid said that the Society is ‘suitably outspoken against sloppy management of Ripon’s assets.’
That last response seems to underline one of the most important points in favour of the Civic Society’s existence. When the Society was founded in 1968 we were in some ways in a very different conservation climate. It was at the height of the passion for ‘redevelopment’, when all that was shiny and new was praised above the old, the small-scale, the familiar.
As John Betjeman put it in his foreword to a seminal book of the period, ‘The Rape of Britain’, ‘In my mind's ear I can hear the smooth tones of the committee man explaining why the roads must go where they do regardless of the humble old town they bisect. In my mind's eye I can see the swish perspective tricked up by the architect's firm to dazzle the local councillors . . . I hear words like' complex', 'conurbation', 'precinct', 'pedestrianisation' and that other couple of words which mean total destruction, 'comprehensive development'. Places cease to have names; they be¬come areas with a number. Houses become housing, human scale is abandoned . . . If there is some street or old shop in the market square, dock, factory or ware¬house, barn or garden wall which you have passed often and taken for granted, do not expect to see it still there next week. Because it is not listed, because it is 'of no historic interest', the bulldozers will be in and part of your background will have gone for ever.’
This was a time when it was possible to demolish what today we would consider perfectly attractive and decent buildings and replace them with something modern. The NatWest Bank in the Market Square is a perfect example.
Yes, things have changed since then. We have a much more robust system of protection for our historic buildings (though it is by no means infallible) and, in general, public opinion has embraced the idea and the ideals of conservation – as long as it doesn’t directly affect them, of course. But we must be careful. In the 60s and 70s Victorian architecture was still largely despised; today it is (usually) valued. The council that approved the removal of the buildings that preceded the NatWest was probably in tune with the thinking of the day. Tastes and opinions change – what we do in good faith today may be the disastrous mistakes of tomorrow.
And that is why the Civic Society has an important role in the city. It does not claim to have all – or indeed most – of the answers. But it does exist to safeguard what we have, to warn and to fight against ill-advised change and to encourage what is best in any new development. In doing so, we may sometimes find ourselves at odds with other interests. That is probably inevitable, and possibly a sign that we are doing our job properly. Our members believe that Ripon is a cause worth battling for; we trust that all its citizens think the same.
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