Why walking in the air may not be pie in the sky this time

Ed Carlisle, one of the organisers for the Holbeck Viaduct group
Ed Carlisle, one of the organisers for the Holbeck Viaduct group
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Following 20 years of recession-hit schemes and unmet goals, Jonathan Brown reports on how an industrial giant might finally be brought back to life.

Decades have passed since a vital industrial pathway into Leeds became a redundant memento of the city’s early growth.

Holbeck Viaduct has been unused for more than a third of its 145-year history but now residents are trying to turn the 1.7km stone structure into a park and walkway, which would revive a £5m pre-recession Leeds City Council plan through a scaled down community-led initiative.

The ambitious scheme has a conservative £10,000 budget aimed to fund two stairwells on to the viaduct, while residents plan to volunteer labour and source cheap materials. And having secured a small Community First grant this week, the group is hoping to fund £1,500 of structural survey and clearance work to see if the project will be viable.

Project leader Ed Carlisle said: “I’m really interested in the way it could be a novelty and bring some profile to south Leeds. Just in itself it will embody an innovative approach to community development because the aspiration is that a bunch of people will come together around a vision and create and sustain a cool and quirky outcome that has a practical use as a walkway.”

The idea is that the viaduct will feature flower beds, lighting and art – potentially celebrating Holbeck’s locomotive links to the likes of pioneering firms such as Matthew Murray.

As the project motors on, the group has a website and promotional video in production, while Ed and the rest of the group are investigating the idea of launching a crowdfunding campaign to try and raise money to help take it forward.

The transformation of Holbeck Viaduct has been an ambition of Leeds architects for more than 20 years, with Bauman Lyons Architects producing a report to Leeds City Council on its feasibility shortly before the recession in the early 2000s.

Within the report, the potential development was described as “an exceptional opportunity to create a facility of national and international interest, since many cities are currently considering the use of their redundant transport infrastructure”.

It suggested that a pedestrian skywalk could be created on top of the viaduct and could be the site for a small market, greenhouses or cafes, while many of the 92 railway arches beneath it could be utilised by small businesses as retail units.

Dr Kevin Grady, director of Leeds Civic Trust, said: “There has been long-term interest in it and certainly if it was achieved it would be a wonderful facility for Leeds because the views from it would be spectacular. In effect the concept is a really good one.

“At the minute only Leeds Sustainable Development Group are promoting ideas for the regeneration of coherent development in the area south of the river and potentially if Leeds is to bid to be European Capital of Culture in 2023 projects like this would capture people’s imaginations.”

He said that Holbeck Viaduct is a “real industrial landmark” and a part of the city’s heritage that should be made use of, but he does have concerns over issues around maintenance, safety for walkers on the viaduct and surveillance.

And in spite of all the mooted plans and talk of discussions, senior Network Rail officials claim they are not aware of the project, while at the same time warning that it may need considerable investment and could be needed for any possible rail developments.

A spokesman said: “We are happy to work with stakeholders to investigate the viability of this project and look forward to learning more about the scheme.

“Any project must be balanced with the need to protect the railway to meet future growth in rail demand.”

So the future of Holbeck Viaduct remains very much in the balance, although residents remain hopeful progress can be made to such an extent that if negotiations are successful a new skywalk through Holbeck could be open in 2015.

The council also considers the development as something with “great potential”, particularly at a time when the nearby area dubbed the Leeds South Bank is considered a priority.

But having failed to gain access to the viaduct through Network Rail, the idea’s progress as far as the council is concerned has been stunted.

Determined residents are keen to get this off the ground however and are appealing for surveyors willing to donate their time, as the group prepares to schedule more regular meetings.

For information on the Holbeck Viaduct project visit www.facebook.com/groups/190849144426363.