Architect's blueprint to change public face of a town with hidden strengths

Some people dream of being swept off their feet by the man of the dreams. Others of winning the lottery. Irena Bauman goes to bed at night thinking of Dewsbury.

For the last 12 months the Leeds-based architect has been charged with pulling together a masterplan, which over the next 25 years will transform the West Yorkshire town.

It's no easy task. To Let signs along Dewsbury's central streets are sadly plentiful. When Marks and Spencer moved out a few years ago, it was seen by many retailers as the final nail in the coffin and today there is a rash of shops offering cash for gold and discount stores.

Many town centres are facing similar problems, but for Dewsbury it's not just the visible scars of the recession which have to be overcome.

The legacy of the Shannon Matthews case and the July 7 bombings – Mohammad Sidique Khan, the mastermind of the terrorists, lived in Dewsbury – has seen the town tarred by association.

However, it has tired of being linked to tragedy, and its renaissance is as much about changing perceptions as it is about bricks and mortar and improving footfall.

"I have fallen more than a little in love with the place," says Irena, founder of Bauman Lyons Architects, who has built a career on making forgotten urban spaces more lovable. "Dewsbury has been the victim of circumstances beyond its control, but at its heart it remains a decent town with a fiercely loyal population. It's also quite beautiful."

Beautiful might not be a word often bandied round in conversations about Dewsbury, yet evidence of its glory days as a mill town are everywhere. York stone buildings, like Pioneer House, the former co-operative headquarters, sit nearby Victorian arcades and the recently restored indoor market has continued to thrive even through tough economic times.

The town didn't escape the concrete block architecture of the 1960s and '70s, but it wasn't blighted by unsympathetic development and, according to Irena, it is possible to enliven its faded grandeur.

"This plan is not about erecting a wave of new contemporary buildings or getting in big retail names, it's much more about building on the foundations of what's already here," she says. "The streets brim with fantastic architecture and by bringing these properties back into use we will also hopefully improve the town's social cohesion.

"In Dewsbury, as with many urban areas, different communities have settled and established their own distinct territories. The town centre has always been a neutral ground and over the next 25 years the hope is we can give the people the kind of facilities there they deserve.

"I learnt very early on that people are quick to turn in Dewsbury. Ask them what they think of the place and they'll start by reeling off the negative aspects, but as soon as you mention the wonderful architecture or the friendly atmosphere, they'll suddenly agree. They'll tell you they love the place and unusually most have no desire to leave. That kind of emotional investment isn't something you can buy or manufacture."

The blueprint for the scheme has just been finalised and while not every piece of the jigsaw has been put in place, the major projects have been identified. The priorities include changing the ring road, which has disconnected many neighbourhoods from the city, developing distinct retail, residential and office quarters and creating one single high street.

Long-term there are also plans to move the town's college into the centre and build a new footbridge over the River Calder.

"When the ring road was built in the 1970s, the idea was to open up areas of the town to traffic and by doing that boost the local economy," says Irena. "However, times have changed and a road of that size and design is no longer needed. It's taking up space and actually putting people off walking into town.

"All of the plans we have are about bringing life back into the centre of Dewsbury. The college needs to move from its present site and when it does it would seem to me to make sense to move it and the 1,000 or so students who go there to somewhere more central.

"Essentially what we are trying to do is to stitch the various parts of the town together. Space is not a problem here, it just needs to be used better."

Those behind the scheme are wary of sounding too ambitious. It's with good reason. In 2003, Will Alsop's plan to remodel the centre of Barnsley in the style of a walled Tuscan village was met with ridicule. In the Dewsbury renaissance, off-the-wall designs and blue-sky thinking are conspicuous only by their absence.

"We could have come up with some headline-grabbing scheme," says Kirklees councillor and chair of the town's regeneration board Paul Kane.

"But this is about more than a little fleeting publicity. Everything we are planning is realistic and achievable. We recognise that a serious regeneration of Dewsbury isn't going to happen overnight and all of us are in it for the long-term."

While the plans were formalised long before David Cameron mentioned the Big Society, they do tick a lot of the current Government's boxes. Borrowing a quote from Gandhi – be the change you want to see in the world – Irena's philosophy has been to involve the ordinary residents of Dewsbury from the start.

A Town Team has been set up, focus groups have been asked for their opinions and underpinning the major developments will be a series of stepping stone projects driven by the public. There's already an idea for a giant community table, which could be rented out by different groups for everything from children's activities to sewing sessions and a duck race to bring people down to the currently overlooked and under-used riverside.

"The whole plan is driven by the philosophy that you can't expect

someone to come along and say, 'Here's a pile of money, do what you

want with it',"

says Irena.

"In part it's about people themselves taking charge of their own

destiny and showing what can be done. I have a dream that as the project gets underway and these stepping stone schemes come to life, it will encourage the town's already successful business people to follow in the same philanthropic footsteps of their Victorian ancestors."

It is early days and with details of the Government's October spending review still to be unveiled, there is a certain amount of finger-crossing going on. However, the scheme has already shown what's possible on the tightest of budgets. Recently, one of the empty arcade units was converted into a caf-cum bakery-cum-bike store. The pop-up shop was by its nature temporary, but it successfully ignited interest from passers-by.

"There was a real buzz about the place," says Chantelle Stewart, who along with her husband, James, helped revitalise the space.

"The idea was to show how Dewsbury could look. Bakers on the market provided the bread, people were coming to buy chutneys and overnight the place was transformed."

James grew up in Dewsbury and with the couple having returned to set up the Dekka design company after a year living in Ireland, he for once

feels optimistic about his home town's future.

"When I was young, Dewsbury was a really nice place to live," he says.

"I guess the decline was so gradual that no one noticed, but the whole place now feels just a little unloved.

"It doesn't need whizz-bang schemes that go nowhere, it needs sensible plans.

"I was a little sceptical at first, but I honestly believe that

Dewsbury does have a future and we can pull it off."

For now, all Irena and everyone else involved in the masterplan can hope is that eventually their dreams for Dewsbury do become a reality.