Mill town momentum

Yorkshire Business Insider, June 2003

The former mill towns of Halifax and Huddersfield are taking different approaches to the challenges of the post-industrial economy. Tim Chapman reports

Just eight miles apart on either side of the M62 between Leeds and Manchester, the two towns of Halifax and Huddersfield have much in common. Both are sizeable towns - Halifax has a population of around 88,000, and Huddersfield boasts of being one of the largest towns in the country with over 110,000 - at the heart of large, semi-rural boroughs - Calderdale and Kirklees respectively. Both were built on the once-mighty industries of textiles and engineering, and both still derive around a quarter of their employment from manufacturing.

Both towns have some highly desirable areas to live and a wealth of historic architecture, as well as some areas of particular social exclusion. Unemployment is about average for West Yorkshire, although a large proportion of the working population commutes to Leeds, Bradford or Manchester.Both towns are struggling to improve their positions as economic centres with a contrasting mix of public and private initiatives.

Leading the way is Yorkshire Forward's Renaissance Towns programme, launched in 2002. The initiative brings internationally renowned architects and urban designers to towns including Huddersfield and Halifax, to draw up regeneration proposals with a team of local people.

The proposals for Halifax, currently on show in the Victorian grandeur of the town hall, present an ambitious mix of ideas from the straightforward, such as improving pedestrian links into the town centre, to the more adventurous - including a cable car up Beacon Hill and a truly radical rethink of the 18th century Piece Hall. Controversial architect Will Alsop envisions a series of postmodern constructs plugged into the outside of the Piece Hall housing everything from a cinema to live/work units, plus a transparent sliding roof for the neo-Roman quadrangle.

"The first ideas that have come out the town team have been thought-provoking," says David Heap of Walker Singleton, the independent firm of commercial property consultants based in Halifax since 1889. "It's got people talking about the town and if it stimulates a debate about the way the town's developing, that has to be a good thing."

Will Cousins of urban planning experts David Lock Associates, who lead the town team, admits some proposals were meant to challenge preconceived ideas. "The Piece Hall is the great undiscovered jewel in the crown of Yorkshire towns, and our proposals were intended to provoke debate," he says. "They were designed principally to bring some fresh thinking about the way we could develop important places like the Piece Hall in an unconventional way, and also quite deliberately to raise the profile of the town."

The proposals of the town team in Huddersfield are prosaic by comparison. Plans are based around turning the town's streets and squares into more attractive and active public spaces, particularly the stretch of John William Street and St John's Road which the town team says could be one of the best streets in the country.

Huddersfield's town centre already feels a more welcoming place than its neighbour, thanks largely to the efforts of regeneration agency Huddersfield Pride. Founded in 1995, the agency last year managed £5.5m SRB funding which attracted a further £18m of public and private funding. Halifax does not have a similar body.

Huddersfield also benefits from the £50 million Kingsgate shopping centre, which opened in March 2002. Halifax lacks a similar development, although it has recently welcomed a string of retail sheds on Charlestown Road on the fringe of the town centre.

The increasing attractions of central Huddersfield were highlighted last month when a residential mill conversion on Firth Street became the fastest-selling development in the country, with 52 of 57 flats sold in three hours. "That kind of development would four or five years ago have been unheard of in Huddersfield," says Alec Michael, of property agency Eddisons.

The commercial property market also remains fairly strong in Huddersfield, with development activity currently concentrated on the A62 Leeds Road. "There is still a shortage of industrial development sites," Michael notes. "The only real development land is in North Kirklees, round Thornhill Road. The terrain is a major problem."

Lowfields Business Park at Elland, midway between Huddersfield and Halifax, dominates the local market with over 600,000 sq ft of new build in the past five years. Construction group Marshalls moves into a new head office at the park next month, leaving just 20 acres for further development.

The other key development is Dean Clough, the sprawling mill complex just north of Halifax town centre. Under the guidance of Sir Ernest Hall, the derelict remains of what was once the largest carpet manufacturer in the world has been transformed into a thriving community of business and the arts, employing around 4000 people in over 100 companies.

Although Sir Ernest is now leaving Yorkshire to found an artists' community in Lanzarote, development continues under his son Jeremy. The West Yorkshire ambulance service has just moved into the 45,000 sq ft F Mill, refurbished at a cost of £6 million after standing empty for 30 years. The final building in the kilometre-long complex, A Mill, is likely to be redeveloped in the next few years.

Office rents for Halifax range from £8-13 per sq ft, depending on quality, while Huddersfield's top rent is around £9.50. "If you look at office space in Huddersfield, there's very little of the calibre of the new space you get at Lowfields, and in terms of refurbished mill offices, there's nowhere in the North of England to compare to Dean Clough - the quality of the latest phases of offices are far and away in advance of anything you see even in Leeds," says Heap. Dean Clough also features in Halifax's Renaissance Town proposals, which call for an improved connections between the complex and the town centre via a redevelopment of the Broad Street carpark. Following the collapse of a previous plan to redevelop the 11 hectare site as a leisure complex, a shortlist of six parties are currently presenting detailed proposals. A final decision is expected in early July.

In business terms, the larger town just has the edge over its neighbour, claims John Wilson, senior partner at the Huddersfield office of accountants and business advisers Mazars. "Leeds and Bradford dominate the West Yorkshire economy and Huddersfield and Halifax lie in their shadow," he says. "Halifax in particular feels hemmed in by Bradford and tends to be more inward looking."

Halifax's economy is dominated by the eponymous bank, now part of HBOS, which last month celebrated its 150th anniversary. It remains the biggest employer in town with around 4000 jobs.

"Huddersfield is a more mixed economy, but in both towns the manufacturing and light engineering sector is holding its own," Wilson adds. "Having said that, I donÕt see the traditional industries bouncing back strongly Š I see them staying at their present level or declining slowly in the future. Halifax and Huddersfield need to find new niches. One ray of hope is the presence of the University of Huddersfield."

Founded in the 1840s as a Mechanics' Institution, the University of Huddersfield is now in the top five nationally for graduate employment. The university also has extensive links with businesses, including the pioneering Business Generator in the town's Media Centre.

The Media Centre is home to 40 companies in its main building on Northumberland Street and another 30 on Lord Street, as well as 21 live-work apartments in its "Creative Lofts" development. The companies based here, almost all in the creative and media sector, employ 270 people and have a combined turnover of around £20 million.

"Our remit is to grow a network of creative and media businesses in Yorkshire," says Toby Hyam, managing director of the Media Centre. "We do that by providing high quality office space and infrastructure, and by providing a creative programme that attracts innovative users of new media and bringing that innovation to Huddersfield. We're trying to create a culture of innovation.

"In terms of the future of the town, it's critical that we provide the best possible environment for talented people to work here," Hyam adds. "Particularly for retaining talent from the university, we don't want people going to Manchester or London for a future in the industry. There needs to be an existing area of activity so people can feel it's worth them staying."

The Media Centre was established in 1995 with public sector funding, but is now self-supporting and borrows commercially to fund further development such as a planned ultra-modern building on the adjoining Friendly Street site. Its managing company has also won the tender from Yorkshire Forward to run the new Round Foundry Media Centre in the Holbeck urban village, Leeds.

Such new industry initiatives can play a valuable role in reigniting the towns' economies but there is no quick fix, cautions Lucy O'Carroll, head of UK macroeconomics at the Royal Bank of Scotland. "Doing clusters and encouraging new business growth can be a bit speculative, and you have to be prepared for the fact not all of them will be instant successes," she says. "It's very positive that both towns are looking for future growth. Although clusters aren't going to provide an instant answer, it's a sensible strategy to think about directions and future potential businesses."