Civic Society with David Winpenny

Ripon town hall ' a better use for the building is needed, says David Winpenny. (S)
Ripon town hall ' a better use for the building is needed, says David Winpenny. (S)

David Winpenny argues it’s time to change the use of Ripon town hall to make the prominent landmark a more welcoming public place at the civic heart of the city.

A week or so ago members of Ripon Civic Society had an excursion to Halifax. ‘Excursion’ may seem an old-fashioned word today, but it’s appropriate for Halifax – an essentially Victorian town of stately buildings and, certainly in the past, civic pride.

One of the stops in an action-packed day was at Halifax town hall, one of the great series of Victorian edifices (sorry, another old-fashioned word) that peppered the north of England when the industrial revolution was at its height.

Such town halls – which include Manchester and Leeds, Preston and Dewsbury, Middlesbrough and Liverpool – were the subject of the talk given in 2010 for the civic society by Dr Jonathan Foyle, television star and chief executive of the World Monuments Fund Britain.

Sir Charles Barry, architect of Halifax town hall, wrote to the town’s corporation in 1859 that: “a town hall should, in my opinion, be the most dominant and important of the municipal buildings of the city in which it is placed. It should be the means of giving due expression to public feeling on all national and municipal events of importance. It should serve, as it were, as the exponent of the life and soul of the city.”

Halifax town hall is a very ornate building, both outside and in. With its pointed tower, loosely based in the example of Burghley House in Lincolnshire, it dominates the centre of Halifax – or at least, it did until earlier this year when a leviathan of a new shopping centre, Broad Street Plaza, rose to obscure the best views.

Inside, the town hall is a riot of mosaics and sculptures, stained glass and moulded plasterwork, each element combining to sing the praises of Halifax and its council.

As the seat of local government (now Calderdale Metropolitan Borough Council), with its offices, council chamber and Mayor’s parlour, it seems to work well enough – though its stupendous main hall seems there only to impress rather than to have a use. Some of the other Yorkshire town halls have the same flavour – Bradford, for example – they are splendid, but not welcoming to the local people, perhaps.

Other town halls were different. One of the earliest, Birmingham town hall, was designed by Joseph Hansom, recently mentioned in this column. This certainly fitted Barry’s rule of its being “the most dominant and important of the municipal buildings” in the city but its function was to host public meetings and concerts, not to serve as the offices for local government.

Much the same is true of perhaps the finest of Yorkshire’s town halls, Cuthbert Broderick’s Leeds example. Leeds town hall, wrote one of its foremost proponents, Dr Heaton, was to be the proof that “in the mercantile pursuits the inhabitants of Leeds have not omitted to cultivate the perception of the beautiful and a taste for the fine arts”.

These two different ways of thinking of a town hall – as the place from which a town or city was governed and as a public place where civic pride could be expressed – have, it seems, always been at odds with each other. This is not surprising; local government can be difficult to shift once it is entrenched in a building and any suggestion that it doesn’t actually need grand offices, and that those spaces they currently occupy could be put to better and more public use, is frequently resisted ... until now.

With the current recession, local authority is retrenching. Everywhere the authorities are looking hard at the buildings they own and sometimes making difficult decisions. Harrogate Borough Council is among them, seeking to give up its Crescent Gardens offices.

This is a double-edged sword. It can be a problem, in that buildings that once had a specific function are now thrown on to the open market with all that such a move implies for the integrity of the buildings, especially their interiors. On the other hand, it can offer an opportunity to make a building much more useful to the community.

Which brings us to Ripon town hall. Always an oddity, Ripon town hall was not purpose built as a centre of local government but as an assembly room – a public role.

The city council was allowed to meet there – not consistently at first – but it was specifically a place for the (better class) public. Mrs Allanson, William Aislabie’s daughter, had it built and the family firmly retained its freehold until the Marquess of Ripon ‘finally’ gave it to Ripon Corporation in 1897. It stayed with them until local government reorganisation in 1974, when it was vested in Harrogate Borough Council.

It is currently underused. The most prominent building on Market Square, it should be the civic heart of the city as much as the cathedral is its ecclesiastical heart. Instead, it houses dingy offices and, in its main room, occasional meetings in an unworkable acoustic.

Ripon Civic Society believes that it could play a much more important role, welcoming local people and visitors to find out about the city and its long and distinguished history, host exhibitions and interesting public talks, meetings and discussions.

We should move Ripon town hall from the Halifax model of a local government bunker to the Leeds model of a welcoming public space.

If Harrogate is looking closely at its property portfolio, here’s a prime example of making a building work harder for its keep.

And now’s the time to do it. Ripon Civic Society has begun the debate; please make your views known.