Skipton: no more a son of York?

THE PEOPLE of North Yorkshire are suspicious of change, and those in the ancient market town of Skipton are no exception. They like the fact that their shopfronts are old-fashioned, that the main street has the whiff of a previous century.

Everybody knows everybody else, and they also know the people they best get on without. Specifically, the old enemy over the hill in Lancashire, and those toffee-nosed so-and-so's in the other direction, in Harrogate.

This is an article of faith as firm as the head on a pint of Tetley's. But the men in suits in London seem determined to change their way of life. With a fine disregard for Tyke sensitivities, Skipton - proud slogan 'Gateway to the Dales' - has been warned that it is almost certainly too small to continue to govern itself as part of Craven District Council when the local government boundaries are changed. Instead, it should join Harrogate.

This has gone down badly. Skipton dislikes the idea of being paired with the spa town that they consider a rich folk's haven, a centre of upmarket lingerie and antique shops, with an unforgivably high council tax.

Local people point out that there is not even a train or bus service to Harrogate. They fear the town, with a population of 100,000-plus, would swallow up Skipton, which is little more than one-tenth its size.

The alternative solution, proposed by its MP, David Curry - who also happens to be the minister responsible for local government boundary changes - has won ardent support. In his photocopying shop at the bottom of town, Dennis Hall, a councillor, displays a map showing the outcome of a possible merger with their Lancashire neighbours in the Ribble Valley.

'We appreciate that we may be too small to get our primary objective, which is to get unitary status for Craven,' he says. 'In that situation we are forced to look for another bedmate and the Ribble district is more in keeping with us because it is also a rural area.'

Mr Hall embodies the Yorkshire patriotism and local loyalties that have been so stirred by the review of council boundaries. He says: 'We've nothing in common with Harrogate. There's a natural boundary there. The hills don't allow us to be friendly neighbours.

'We in Craven are enjoying the benefits of a prudent council. Our council tax rate is one of the lowest in the country.'

But Mr Curry's alternative proposal would bring its own problems. To unite with Ribble Valley would mean the unheard-of necessity of combining Yorkshire and Lancashire interests. And ever since the Wars of the Roses, the two counties have been characterised by rivalry. To some North Yorkshire minds, Lancastrians are yokels, who are a bit thick and certainly living in an inferior county.

'Does David Curry really think that the people of Craven would willingly cast aside tradition, history and interests to merge with a Lancashire council with whom we have no cultural, family or historical ties?' asks a letter in this week's Craven Herald and Pioneer. 'Has he learned so little in the time he has represented the constituency to think that he can bamboozle the population into such a marriage?'

Others are campaigning for a return to Yorkshire for towns and villages transferred to Lancashire by the last local government review in 1974. They include the towns of Earby and Barnoldswick and villages in the forest of Bowland whose residents have never accepted their change of identity.

Craig Tune, a labourer from Barnoldswick, is part of the Campaign for Real Yorkshire. He says: 'We're doing it for our identity and heritage and birthright. We think we'd get better services and lower council tax from Yorkshire.'

The issue will remain up in the air until next month for Craven, when the Boundaries Commission will make its final recommendation on the district's future. The Ribble Valley is due to hear its own final decision in July.

But 15 miles down the A59 in Clitheroe, where the headquarters of Ribble Valley Borough Council are based, residents are distinctly tepid about the prospect of a merger with Skipton. 'There's only one good thing in Yorkshire, and that's the road out,' says Alan Nuttall, a builder born and bred in Clitheroe. 'Clitheroe's a very close-knit community - I'm Lancashire first and English second. We're better off staying as we are.'

Others, however, admit that Skipton and Clitheroe have obvious similarities. The market towns have populations of a similar size and both are rural in character.

Dave Brass, a Clitheroe greengrocer who has stood for Parliament, says: 'If we've got to merge with somebody, Skipton is a better choice than the urban ones - Blackburn and Burnley. We've got more in common.'

(Photograph omitted)