COLUMN: Civic Society with David Winpenny

The Station Inn, boarded up but with no ugly security fencing (S)
The Station Inn, boarded up but with no ugly security fencing (S)

David argues it is important to stop the problems of urban and planning blight early on.

Blight. It’s one of those words that will immediately result in a drooping of the spirits.

It may be partly to do with the sound of the word itself; often words starting with “bl” … are doom-laden. Think of blister, blot, blag, blame, blemish, blitz . . . Only words staring with “sl”… can be more uncomfortable to the ear – slime, slop, slither, slur ... .

Blight is one of those technical words that have slipped out of the particular into the general. Originally – it’s first noted in the 16th century – it was a term for an infection of the skin. It soon became an agricultural term: blight is what you don’t want in your crops – a disease that is likely to have been caused by fungi such as mildews, rusts, and smuts. Blight is bad news for farmers.

And it’s bad news for all of us if we are faced with urban blight or with planning blight. It’s often associated with large planning schemes that are undertaken “for the public good” but which, as they are being developed, plunge ordinary people into limbo. So when the coalition Government ruled out bringing forward a third runway at Heathrow airport for the duration of this parliament, it did nothing to quell the fears of people whose lives – and the value of whose property – are blighted by uncertainty about the future. The scheme might well be resurrected after 2015.

In the same way the super-railway dubbed High-Speed 2 (HS2) has now spread its blight northwards. For some years people between London and Birmingham have been fighting what they see as a route that will cut, seemingly without thought, through some of our open countryside and, as it does so, making property unsaleable or threatening endless disruption.

With the announcement of the Y-shaped route from Birmingham towards Manchester and Leeds, more people are blighted.

At Church Fenton near York, a spur from the HS2 route towards (though not into) York will see the line being carried on high stilts across fields and above houses. No wonder the residents are up in arms.

Not too long ago there was a fight against new pylons set to march across the Vale of York. There are regular protests about new roads. It is often infrastructure that causes major problems for people.

There is some recognition that as large schemes are being planned people need to be able to buy and sell their property – so the latest HS2 announcement came with a “sweetener” – the cheerfully-named Exceptional Hardship Scheme that promises help to anyone “whose property values may be seriously affected by the Government’s initial preferred route announcement ... and who can demonstrate they have an urgent need to sell their properties before any decision is made to safeguard the route”.

Whether you get it will depend, of course, on all sorts of things, including how far away from the line you are (the Government will decide, no doubt), the contours of the land, the surrounding features, the relative height of the railway in relation to the property and the likely disruption to the property during construction.

And what of Ripon and the area around? We are not likely to see high speed routes or airports here – but there can still be blight, as was pointed out in a letter in the Ripon Gazette last week about the proposed reopening of the railway.

Ripon Civic Society supports the reopening of the railway to Ripon – but acknowledges that long-winded discussion about it can promote uncertainty for people near the possible route. That is why the society urges all parties to reach a decision as soon as possible.

Two other recent letters are also relevant to the notion of blight. Both were about the site of the former auction market and the limbo into which it seems to have fallen.

In particular, the fate and state of the Station Inn in its prominent position on one of the main approaches to the city has, quite rightly, been criticised.

The building is now empty and deteriorating and it is surrounded by steel security fencing that has no redeeming qualities at all.

There are two matters to be considered here. One is the fencing itself. Although it is understandable that the owners of the site wish to make and keep it safe, there can be no excuse for keeping this temporary fencing in place for so long.

Any householder who surrounded his garden in this way would fairly soon be told by the local authority to remove it or replace it with something better.

If planning for the auction mart site is being delayed, a more permanent and more attractive solution to its security must be found – and enforced.

The second matter is that of the building. The planning application for the site has proposed the demolition of the Station Inn.

Allowing inconvenient buildings to become ever more derelict is a favourite ploy of many developers, who can eventually argue that its state is so bad that it must go.

In this case the former pub is a decent and attractive building in a prominent place on the way into the city. The Civic Society has objected to its demolition.

Instead it should immediately be repaired to keep it in a reasonable condition until it can be developed as an integral part of any new construction on the site. Again, the local authority has a role to play in achieving this.

This type of local blight may not hit the headlines like airports or railways, but can be just as damaging.

We need early resolution of such matters – and a quick eradication of these spirit-sapping problems.