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Published by the Society in the Ripon Gazette, 7th May 2010
The setting of a listed building is important – as a dispute in Harrogate shows, argues David Winpenny

Last month this column looked at ways of celebrating the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, and suggested that the spires might be put back on the Cathedral.

If ever this were to be considered as a possible ‘runner’, there would be lots of hoops to jump through, not least because Ripon Cathedral is a Grade I listed building. The process that had to be followed would be particularly rigorous. Official bodies of many hues would all have their say, and their comments would need to be taken into account before a yea or nay could be given.

Now here’s another idea. Suppose a utility wanted to build what they argued was a vital facility close to the Cathedral – for the sake of argument, let’s invent a utility company called ‘Toytown Water’ that wants a flood relief pumping station, and that the only place to put it, they argue, is in the Cathedral churchyard, east of the Cathedral. (Please be reassured that this is NOT a plan that has been put forward by anyone – it’s entirely for the purposes of this argument!)

Say, too, that the proposed building would affect the views of the Cathedral not just from Low St Agnesgate but from further afield – possibly even from the city’s approach roads. What would be our attitude?

All this comes to mind because a similar problem is now facing Harrogate. Harrogate has only one Grade I Listed building. It is the church of St Wilfrid in Duchy Road, a wonderful early 20th-century building by top Edwardian architect Temple Moore. St Wilfrid’s has won lots of plaudits; Pevsner, in The Buildings of England, called it ‘easily the most valuable of the many churches in Harrogate’, and Peter Burton’s ‘North Yorkshire’, published in 2006, names it as ‘one of the great twentieth-century churches of England, the masterpiece of Temple Moore.’ It even appears in a poem by John Betjeman, that begins ‘O I wad gang tae Harrogate/Tae a kirk by Temple Moore,/Wi’ a tall choir and a land nave/And rush mats on the floor.’

The Grade I listing of the church means that it is ‘of outstanding architectural or historic interest’. In England there are 9,300 Grade 1 listed buildings – just 2.5 per cent of the total of all listed buildings. They include such masterpieces as Castle Howard and the Tower of London – and Ripon Cathedral, of course. Of these, less than half are parish churches. That means that St Wilfrid’s is really in the top flight.

Now Harrogate Borough Council has before it a planning application from by CE Electric UK to build a primary electricity station on the south side of the church, on land that St Wilfrid’s owns. This might not sound too bad – until the size of the station is apparent – it will be 30 metres (almost 100 feet) long, and 8 metres (more than 26 feet) high and deep.

However well the new building is landscaped (and current plans are not encouraging) this will interfere with the views of the southern side of the church. St Wilfrid's Parochial Church Council has agreed to the deal, which would help their finances. But it is, of course, inevitable that there has been a good deal of local protest, not least from Harrogate Civic Society and from The Victorian Society.

The attitude of English Heritage, though, has been puzzling. Its officials have not objected to the planning application – merely commented on the details of the building and the landscaping. This way of looking at an application for work near a listed building is worrying, not just for St Wilfrid’s and for Harrogate, because it has wider implications – for Ripon, for example.

Indeed, it is possible to argue that such an attitude has already impacted upon Ripon, when English Heritage, instead of defending the Spa Baths, worked with planners to turn the building into private housing.

Yet it is quite clear that all agencies should be protecting not just the listed buildings themselves but also their setting. New government planning guidance, called PPS 5, was published on 31 March this year. It has the force of law (it replaces earlier but similar guidance) and it clearly states that ‘The effect of an application on the significance of such a heritage asset or its setting is a material consideration in determining the application.’ And that ‘substantial harm to or loss of designated heritage assets of the highest significance, including . . . grade I and II* listed buildings’ should be allowed only in the most exceptional circumstances.

The supplementary ‘Practice Guide’ amplifies this; ‘Heritage assets may be affected by direct physical change or by change in their setting,’ and ‘in considering whether to grant planning permission for development that affects a listed building or its setting or whether to grant listed building consent, the local planning authority shall have special regard to the desirability of preserving a listed building or its setting.’

The setting of a building can be as important as its structure. This is why there is such controversy at St Wilfrid’s in Harrogate – and why we need to look out for Ripon’s listed buildings too. It is highly unlikely that the Cathedral would be affected in quite this way, but you never know what might be planned even now. We await the outcome of the St Wilfrid’s planning application with interest – and in the hope that Harrogate Borough Council will be guided to a clear and fair decision in the light of PPS 5.

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