Our heritage goldmine: Mill owners told to tap into the ‘engines of past prosperity’ to drive future growth

The owners and developers of Sunny Bank Mills, John Gaunt and William Gaunt at the site's community artspace. ''Picture by Simon Hulme
The owners and developers of Sunny Bank Mills, John Gaunt and William Gaunt at the site's community artspace. ''Picture by Simon Hulme
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THE TEXTILE mills of the West Riding defined the area for generations, not only employing many thousands of workers, but shaping the physical landscape of villages, towns and cities.

But after manufacturing gradually came to a standstill, more than 1,300 mills across Leeds, Bradford, Calderdale and Kirklees stand empty or under-used.

Now a new report from Historic England is calling for mill owners and developers to tap into this vacant goldmine - and use the engines of our past prosperity to drive forward the Northern Powerhouse agenda.

A generation on from the pioneering developments of Titus Salt’s Salts Mill in Saltaire, and the internally-renowned Dean Clough in Halifax, the report says the region’s former textile mills could accommodate 27,000 homes or 150,000 jobs - with a typical vacant mill having the potential to create £4.7m a year if used for employment.

Some of the best conversions across the county were examined by property consultants Cushman and Wakefield and architects Lathams to investigate potential solutions for bringing vacant mills into use, such as Victoria Mills in Shipley, Marshalls Mill in Leeds and Parkwood Mills in Huddersfield.

It also examined some of the most challenging under-used mills, such as Hebden Bridge’s Old Town Mill, and found there is a real need for collaboration to bring the important buildings back into use.

Sunny Bank Mills in Farsley, Leeds, was hailed as a great example of how being passionate about the importance of a mill to a local community and the desire to bring it back as a site of employment can drive redevelopment.

It also received acclaim for the way in which the regeneration of the Mills was phased, to ensure it could be self-financed without relying on external funding.

Sunny Bank Mills has been in the Gaunt family since 1829, when it was developed by a group of clothiers.

It expanded throughout the 19th century, and by the break of the 20th century was one of Leeds premier spinners and weavers and had a reputation as one of the finest cloth producers in the world.

When it closed in 2008, after 180 years of production, joint managing directors, cousins William and John Gaunt, were determined to see it remain both part of the community and a centre of employment.

Regeneration began in 2010, when part of the building dating back to 1912 was converted into office space, and it has continued since, with over £4m invested in the re-development. Now 60 businesses occupy space at the Mills, from engineers and textile artists to architects and a children’s play gym. It also has community and exhibition space.

William Gaunt said: “Our family have been involved here for generations, and for better or worse, we are emotionally linked to the site.

“Commercially it would have been sensible to knock down the buildings and start again, but when manufacturing stopped two things were important, that we kept the site as a place that provide employment, and preserved as many of the buildings as possible.

“In certain respects the community here has always had ‘ownership’ of the Mill as it’s in the centre of the village, so we wanted to get the community back involved in the Mill.”

During the course of the study, there were fires at vacant mills across the region, including Drummond Mill in Manningham, Bradford, which was devastated by a huge blaze in January.

Historic England said each incident “emphasises the need for action to secure a sustainable future for the remaining mills”.

It is recommending that local authorities, the region’s Local Enterprise Partnership and other bodies “unlock the delivery” of some of the more challenging and difficult sites, in order to “reap huge rewards” to the local economy, environment and deliver housing.

Historic England planning director for Yorkshire, Trevor Mitchell said: “These textile mills are the original Northern Powerhouse and a great resource for the future. They still shape our skyline and are providing new spaces for the creative and digital industries as well as housing for the 21st Century. We want to work with partners willing to find creative solutions to bring new uses to these old mills to secure their future.”

Property consultants Cushman and Wakefield found positive emerging trends from recent successful developments, including growing developer and investor appetite in taking on former mills.

Director, Stephen Miles said: “The scale of the opportunity is vast, but mills are considered high risk ventures by some. We need to overcome this by learning from those that have done it well and by marshalling the expertise and funding to have a lasting impact on the region’s economy and on the survival of our heritage.”