Best High Street in the country? Frederic Manby reports on retail rumblings in award- winning Skipton.
Two years ago Skipton beat mighty thoroughfares such as Kensington High Street to be voted the land's finest high street. It was always a moot point, like any subjective "best of" title, but its wide cobbled shoulders, attractive alleys and stately parish church and ancient castle are definitely many people's ideal.
But now something is riling its ratepayers and Civic Society as well as the latter-day lord at the castle. Focus of their disquiet is Craven District Council. In recent years the town has paid a small fortune to consultants, hoping they would tell it how to go forward into the 21st century. There was a headline Renaissance plan. Ideas went out to public consultation. The gist was "no thanks". The councillors' response (with some dissenters) was "we know what's best". Nothing happened.
This is a town with so much going for it. The setting, on the southern entrance to the Yorkshire Dales and its National Park scoops up a lucrative cross section of guests – walkers, shoppers, canal users, tourists and travellers. It has strategic road links between east and west, north and south. It is a popular stop on the Leeds-Liverpool canal, with a large basin for overnight mooring. The main rail route to Carlisle and Glasgow goes through its station. The largest employer is Skipton Building Society and it also has the award-winning Copper Dragon Brewery. It has street markets four days a week, was voted "best day out" by Yorkshire Post readers and it was a national finalist in another competition. Parents spend sleepless nights trying to get their sons and daughters into the two grammar schools. Some even move into the catchment area in hope.
It is, then, the epitome, for some people, of the town which has everything. It is also very busy most days of the year with visitors and road traffic. It is this bustle which generates visitors. More than 100,000 of them a year pay to visit the magnificent Norman castle. From its vantage point, Sebastian Fattorini looks over what once was the domain of the Cliffords. His family bought it in 1956 and for the last 11 years he has been administrator.
From here the immediate scene has not changed for the worse in centuries. The major blot, built as a health clinic, replaced a Georgian house at number nine, High Street. Now the district council is teetering on the edge of what many feel is another major mistake. On Monday its planning committee may make a decision on the biggest retail development in the town's history. It would see the sale by the council of The Blot plus a substantial amount of land behind the town hall, currently used for parking for town council employees and the public.
It would fill in what is mostly ground level with a "two-storey" shopping centre, rising higher in warehousing at one side. The scale is such that the top would be visible from the church and castle. From the other side, it would similarly block views of the castle and rub against the gardens at the rear of the Georgian house. From there the view to one side would be of a colossal blank brick wall.
The site has been valued for the council, one report says, at 800,000, and the contract could be signed before Christmas. The developers are said to want a quick agreement because of pressure from Argos to start work. Tenants are thought to include the usual mix of fashion and fast food retailers. At present there is no national pizza or burger brand in the town centre.
Skipton Civic Society, guardians of the town's heritage, has asked the council to hold its horses. Skipton's town council, based in the town hall, is against the plan, citing the loss of 101 parking spaces, the effect on the viability of the commercial activities in the town hall because of poorer access, the type of shops – you name it. Heavy lorry movements will be necessary for deliveries, negotiating a car park which already gets "throng" with cars trying to park, like ants into a nest.
The prospect of it all has shocked Sebastian Fattorini. His family business began as jewellers in Skipton in 1827, erecting a large building at the lower end of the High Street They celebrated the centenary lavishly in Skipton Town Hall in 1927. Today their core business is making medals, swords and regalia for which they hold a Royal Warrant.
Running the castle is a seven-days a week job but one he enjoys. Last weekend it was hosting plays and it is open to the paying public all year. The castle has recently got planning permission to provide 193 parking spaces in its grounds, for visitors to the castle and the town.
The 44-year-old was lured away from his bespoke and lucrative jewellery business in London, which paid well enough to allow several months a year travelling, motor-biking and surfing.
His family home was in Cheshire but his conversation makes it clear that he has become "hefted" to Yorkshire and to Skipton. He says it is the essence of Yorkshireness.
He is appalled at the scale and impact and of the retail plans. Partly, this is to do with the impact on the views from and to the castle – regarded as one of the best preserved medieval castles in Britain. There are deer and kingfishers in the castle's wood, open to strollers and within minutes of the High Street.
The proposed replacement for The Blot at 9 High Street is equally out of keeping with its neighbours, and it is higher. Mr Fattorini says the timing of the development is wrong, as shoppers move to the internet. The loss of car parking spaces, exacerbated by the parking needs of the influx of employees at the retail centre, is disastrous.
Skipton's existing pay and display parking, notoriously expensive in comparison with neighbouring shopping centres, struggles to meet present demand.
In a letter to the District Council's planning department he says: "Whilst we support the principle of development on this site we consider that the applicants must be asked to re-submit a more appropriate scheme. Any proposals on this site will have an enormous impact on the setting of a large number of listed buildings and structures.
"One must also question the appropriateness of Pizza Hut and Starbucks (or their equivalents) operating from 11am to 11pm directly opposite the Grade 1 listed medieval church and Cenotaph."
He says the church and castle gatehouse "are both important to the heritage character of the town and act as navigation markers to visitors to Skipton. The obstruction of these views by what is effectively a large out-of-town retail park development parachuted into the centre of one of Britain's most acclaimed Conservation Areas should be resisted until a more sympathetic design is produced."
He adds: "There is the very real danger here that Craven District Council's planning committee is about to make the same irredeemable mistake made by a previous generation. The bulk and mass of this enormous box being dropped at the top of the High Street will have no less an impact on the appearance of the town from so many viewpoints as the former (Skipton) building society building (the tallest office building in Skipton and famously described by Prince Charles as a carbuncle). At effectively four commercial storeys, its location so close to so many smaller important listed buildings will be completely devastating."
His suggestion is wait until the economic climate is better and produce something more in keeping with the town, what he calls a shopping experience rather than a smash-and-grab to fill a hole in the council's finances. He suggests the town should have a 50-year plan.