Two weeks ago this column looked at how the tide of history could leave buildings of the past stranded in what today we may consider degraded or unsuitable locations – like the Saxon church and monastery at Jarrow and the castle at Newcastle upon Tyne. And we looked at places that succeeded in spite of their unpromising location – like St Petersburg and Washington DC.
Readers may have received the impression that such degradation of places was something of the past, and that today we know better how to treat the buildings of the past. To some extent that is true; we now have legislation protecting many of our historic buildings.
Since the Ancient Monuments Act of 1882 there have been powers (very limited, originally) for the state to take monuments into its ownership to ensure their protection. That act listed just 68 monuments throughout Britain, virtually all of them prehistoric.
This wasn’t the first time that protection had been offered; in 1560 there was an act of parliament ‘Agaysnt breakying or defacing of Monumentes’, which aimed to protect churches and the ruins of monasteries after the upheavals of the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward Vi and Mary Tudor.
There were additions and amendments to the 1882 Ancient Monuments Act, but it wasn’t until the Town and Country Planning Acts of 1944 and 1947 that the ‘listing system’ was introduced.
This required the compilation of lists of important buildings for protection.
Subsequent acts have amended the legislation so that in England and Wales we now have the familiar Grade I, II* and II categories of listing as well as scheduled ancient monuments.
The most recent National Planning Policy Framework of 2012 supposedly simplified planning law and the multifarious rules that had surrounded it. Some critics have argued that in doing so it weakened the protection given to historic buildings.
Perhaps of more concern have been the effects of ‘austerity’, and especially the cuts to local authority budgets. Nearly all local authorities used to employ specialist conservation officers whose role was to monitor the built environment and ensure historically important buildings were protected as far as possible.
Many of those posts have either been cut completely – with many authorities having lost all their conservation officers – or the staff have been diverted mainly to normal planning duties, leaving much less time for conservation work.
Between 2008 and 2014, it is noted, local authorities lost 35 per cent of conservation officers, and the rate of attrition has increased since then.
There has also been a loss of enforcement officers, part of whose role was to ensure that work on listed buildings was carried out properly in accordance with any planning permissions and with the law.
We have seen the result of this in the seeming inability of Harrogate Borough Council to take effective action on some of Ripon’s problem buildings, including the three buildings at the junction of Water Skellgate and Low Skellgate, on the Maltings at Ure Bank and on the former Girls’ High School building.
There has also been what we can consider a marked tendency to turn a ‘blind eye’ to other matters.
There are several sites in Ripon that have been surrounded by see-through metal fencing for far too long – this is supposed to be a temporary measure, to be replaced by something more permanent and more visually acceptable within, at the most, a few months.
Among the serial offenders in this regard are, again, the Ure Bank Maltings, the former Station Hotel on North Road and the former filling station on Skellbank, near the eastern end of Mallorie Park Drive; all these have metal fencing that has been there long enough to appear on Google Earth’s Street View.
But it is not just local authorities, which we know have financial difficulties, that are to blame for such a state of affairs. There are many lesser infringements of regulations – and other matters that we can see all around us that are not illegal but are still lacking in an appreciation of what we might call ‘civic pride’.
It is illegal to put up banners – those plasticised advertising hoardings that come and go in the city – without permission, yet most appear without any application. Periodically the local authorities have a blitz on them, removing them from display.
They appear in many places – the railings in front of the Town Hall are not immune. Some are there to promote charities or arts events; some are more overtly commercial.
Advertising is, of course, necessary – but so is adherence to regulations.
Some banners fall under the jurisdiction of Harrogate Borough Council; others, including those on the fencing and railings at the bypass roundabout at the end of Boroughbridge Road, which for a time was festooned with a dozen or so, are the responsibility of North Yorkshire County Council. They are a distraction to motorists – as are (also illegal) signs hammered into grass verges.
Then there are other niggles, like signs tied to lampposts (and never removed but left to fall down) – among which we can count the green planning permission notices, which, though they put up by the local authority, should be taken down by the applicant.
There are the untidy and unpainted shop fronts (which is where these columns started a decade ago) and uncleared gutters that spill water on to pavements – not legal matters but something that should be addressed from a practical point of view.
Is the picture all bad? Of course not. Ripon has much to be proud of, and its achievements need to be celebrated.
Ripon Civic Society plays its part such celebrations with its regular awards to deserving buildings and projects. But it is not just the responsibility of the Society – or indeed of the local authorities – to ensure that Ripon is always at its best.
It is up to all of us to play our part in promoting the values and wellbeing of the city.