No exit from Cavalier Approach... how the developers' dreams turned to dust

With hundreds of empty apartment blocks standing as a stark symbol of a development dream in tatters, Sarah Freeman examines the future for Yorkshire's cities.

A few minutes' walk from Leeds city centre stands one of the many new apartment blocks which were once sign of a flourishing economy.

Overlooking this supposedly brave new world of luxury city living there are streets of terraced houses, many of them boarded up. One is called Cavalier Approach, which is exactly what many believe the new wave of developers were guilty of.

Richmond Hill is a stark example of just how badly things have gone wrong. There's little sign of life in the apartments – there's just one set of garden furniture on the dozens of balconies – and elsewhere it's clear the prosperity such developments were supposed to bring to the area hasn't arrived.

The Captain's Table Transport Cafe is still open for business, but the area is littered with for sale signs and on one of the many pubs which used to do a brisk trade on the Easy Street pub crawl there's a brewery billboard advertising for new managers.

"We had 20 years of unprecedented boom and development which I doubt we'll see again in our lifetime," says architect Irena Bauman. "It was well intentioned and sprang from the Government's Urban White Paper which wanted to bring back the idea of city living. The problem was it was all done too quickly.

"There are 17,000 people living in this area, yet there is not one food shop. Some of the pubs have already shut their doors, the library has been earmarked for closure. All the extra wealth which was supposed to be brought in by property development hasn't touched places like this."

With unfinished developments mothballed, places like Richmond Hill have been left to lick the wounds inflicted by those who believed the good times would last forever. It remains a predominantly working class area, but one blighted by graffiti, derelict properties and the odd burnt out car.

It's a place most people skirt round, but having spent many hours walking its streets, Irena, a partner in the Leeds architecture firm Bauman Lyons still believes it, and areas like it, could have a future.

"What's happened is terrifying," she says. "Often the people who live in places like this feel they don't have a voice. They are a silent majority who no one listens to and now the boom has turned to bust there's a real risk they will be completely forgotten.

"At the moment we are carrying out a detailed piece of research looking at what skills there are already here and how they could be used to make the area a better place to live.

"When you start talking to people and ask them what improvements they would like to see, you suddenly find they are full of ideas and most of what they want is very simple to achieve. It just takes a bit of thought and sadly that is exactly what's been lacking.

"The only solution on the table was build new flats and everything else will follow."

It's easy to be critical and it wasn't just Leeds which fell under the spell of the build now pay later philosophy. Manchester may have delivered its own vision of the future with what Irena describes as "greater panache", but the city centre is similarly awash with two bedroom, two bathroom flats no one wants to buy.

"Estate agents and developers became convinced that 65m sq flats was what was needed and the idea was pursued with absolute tunnel vision," she says. "They are not meant for long-term living and at the moment there is no infrastructure to support them. In Leeds city centre there is one doctors' surgery, but there are no schools and very little which would attract families.

"What we now have to do is work with what we've got. We have to salvage the future."

Some of the existing buildings she says could be converted, with a little imagination, into more practical family homes and if investment is directed into preserving local shops and amenities, it may just be possible to stop the rot.

"On the plus side the number of schemes which are now unlikely to go ahead means quite a lot of land has once again become a blank canvas. We all know now that simply throwing up apartment blocks doesn't work, so we need to think more creatively.

"We need to link the fringes of the city to the centre, we need to create attractive public places and we need to invest in quality.

"You know, there hasn't been a new civic green space opened in the centre of Leeds since the 1850s and now we all have been forced to stop and think we need to come up with a strategy which satisfies not only today's needs, but which will work in 20 or 40 years time."

With much of the property and construction industry currently held in suspended animation, the forced period of reflection could yet benefit another Yorkshire city. Plans for a 320m shopping centre in Bradford were unveiled to great fanfare, but with Westfield, the firm behind the development, recently announcing work won't get underway until next year at the earliest, the people who live and work in the centre have been left staring at a giant crater.

"It's tempting to think that Bradford has always been the poor relation to Leeds, but that's not how I see it," says Irena. "Forty years ago, it was a prosperous city and it's only quite recently that it has ended up on its knees.

"Sadly, when it came to looking at how to move the place forward the developers seemed determined to go down the potentially disastrous route of trying to replicate not just Leeds but other identikit cities.

"It was almost like a return to the 70s when there was a big rush to build these great big shopping malls housing the same chains you get everywhere else.

"The reality is we are all becoming much more sophisticated and with the brakes having been put on construction there is now time to go back to the drawing board."

Irena insists a successful development would recognise that Bradford doesn't need a homogenous shopping centre, but should capitalise on the city's natural assets.

"The centre of Bradford needs to reflect the fact it is a multicultural city," she says. "You need to start by giving the people who live there the kind of shops they want. If they are happy and if Bradford manages to harness the things which make it different then others will follow. No one is going to come to Bradford just to shop in New Look.

"The city also has a really great cultural base with the National Media Museum, the Alhambra and St George's Hall, which is often overlooked. What it needs now is someone with the vision to knit the community and the culture together."

Irena points to the likes of Bristol and Bath as evidence of what cities should be aspiring to. Both have successfully combined their heritage with modern developments and earlier this year Bristol was named as one of the top 10 cities in the world to visit.

Closer to home, Sheffield has also emerged from the shadows

of economic decline with a blueprint designed to embrace

the future while preserving the city's soul.

"The regeneration of Sheffield has been successful because before any development was started there was a clear strategy as to what the city stood for," says Irena. "It probably worked in its favour that Sheffield wasn't seen as an attractive proposition for developers as Leeds because it gave the authorities time to think about the best way forward.

"A lot of money has been invested into the public realm. The area around the station now looks inviting and on the foundations of the Made in Sheffield brand they've built a series of impressive office developments and turned the centre into a creative hub. There's been a focus on high quality and everything that's cheap and nasty has been rejected."

With the global credit crunch, the rulebook which governed the last 15 years of city centre development has been torn up. In many places the scars of over-development will be visible for some time to come, but it has also brought into sharp perspective the need for a clear, forward-thinking future plan.

"I don't think our city centres will die," says Irena. "In the next 15 years they will be forced to adapt and if the opportunity is used well it will benefit us all."