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Published by the Society in the Ripon Gazette, 18th June 2010
Ripon in 1745
Some time ago this column considered the question ‘Where is Ripon?’ It asked if Ripon thought of itself as part of the Leeds City Region, or of the Tees and Vale area, as part of the Dales or of the Vale of Mowbray.

But there is an even more fundamental question. ‘What is Ripon for?’

On the face of it, this is a foolish question. It’s pretty obvious that Ripon is a place to live and, for some, to work. Certainly since the Scottish monks set up their first monastery here, and probably for long before that, Ripon has been a settlement where people can come together for mutual advantage and defence, to buy and sell, and to carry out the functions which naturally collect around any settlement.

Over the centuries, these basic functions did not change, even as Ripon grew. Of course, that growth was never particularly rapid or great – unlike, as Dr Jonathan Foyle reminded the audience at his lecture for Ripon Civic Society on Friday 11 June, in the industrial cities of the north. They expanded hugely in the first part of the 19th century. Leeds, for example, had a population of 30,669 in 1801; 1831 it had more than doubled to 71,602, and then by 1861 it almost tripled again to 207,000.

Ripon, by contrast had, in 1841, a population of just 5,735. There are many reasons that Ripon missed out on the effects of the industrial revolution, though it would be interesting to know how many people in Ripon and the surrounding area left agricultural jobs to move to the growing industrial cities in the 1830s and 1840s, as so many people all around the country did. Ripon’s heyday in the textile industry had passed three hundred years before; other industries, such as tanning, milling and spur-making, did not lead to an expanded industrial sector.

There was another possibility for Ripon, when in the late 15th and early 16th centuries a university was proposed for the city. Had that come about, Ripon would certainly have expanded, perhaps into a northern equivalent of Cambridge. A Ripon education would be spoken of in the same breath as an ‘Oxbridge’ degree, academics would throng the city’s busy streets and the railway station would be busy with students coming and going.

But these are all parallel universes – perhaps in another existence Ripon’s heavy industries make millions for local entrepreneurs, or in the ivy-clad towers of colleges experts discourse on arcane subjects. For us, Ripon is what we have today – a place that seems in some ways not to have quite decided what it wants to be.

Maybe 50 – or 40 – years ago the role of Ripon was much clearer. It was, to a larger extent, a place where people worked as well as lived. Where local children went to the local schools, rather than, as many are today, being either transported out of the city to schools elsewhere or transported in to our renowned grammar school. Where there was, perhaps, more of a sense of civic pride in the wellbeing of the city. Perhaps this was a period when the more-enlightened of Ripon’s citizens foresaw change; it is probably no coincidence that Ripon Civic Society was founded in 1968.

In the 1990s the by-pass arrived and then there was the excitement of the influx of funds to improve the city – most visible now in the re-ordering of the Market Square. But what since? Has the city yet decided its future?

The reconstituted Ripon City Partnership – now the Greater Ripon Improvement Partnership (GRIP), in recognition of the fact that Ripon is not an island but is surrounded by a hinterland that looks to the city for its services and, to some extent, for its prosperity – is seeking to give Ripon a new purpose and determination.

Yet behind this activity there remains the philosophical question of ‘What is Ripon for?’ This brings up another series of questions; ‘What is the basis of the city’s prosperity?’: ‘Is Ripon the optimum size or should it expand – say to 20,000 – so that it can more readily sustain the services and infrastructure that it requires, and could attract more business?’: ‘Should we fight to maintain the status quo or should we be open to new ideas – perhaps going all out as a tourist centre, or accepting and embracing a role mostly as a dormitory town for people who work elsewhere by adapting to a different sort of role?’

Some people will be offended even by the fact that such questions can be asked. But we need to be realistic. These – and other perhaps awkward questions – are there to be considered, and ignoring them will not help progress in Ripon. Let us take the debate forward, so that we can, sooner rather than later, try to reach a consensus on ‘what Ripon is for.’

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