The White Rose Shopping Centre opened 15 years ago facing huge opposition amid fears it would do for Leeds what Meadowhall did for Sheffield. Now a proposed expansion is welcomed. Rod McPhee considers the incredible turnaround.
The fears that grew back in the mid 1990s when proposals for an out-of-town Leeds shopping centre first emerged were completely understandable.
Back in 1990, the arrival of a similar retail scheme on the edge of Sheffield spelt disaster for their city centre. And when the White Rose Centre opened its doors many believed it would sound a similar death knell for local businesses.
In theory it would have been bad enough for Leeds city centre, which was only just garnering its reputation as a “Knightsbridge of the North” thanks to the Victoria Quarter shopping centre and its prize tenant, Harvey Nichols, but the impact on the heart of Morley could have been catastrophic.
Local councillor Neil Dawson remembers the controversy at the time.
“Both local people and Leeds City Council initially opposed the plans” he said. “And to some degree the fears were founded. I think Morley town centre, for example, has suffered, but to what extent it’s hard to say. It’s doing alright now, but it has struggled, that’s for sure.
“But I think retailers have now learned to live together and in some ways I think the perceived threat of the White Rose Centre actually galvanised a lot of the retailers in the middle of Leeds and Morley.”
The threat was always more apparent than real, however. Although its overall site is bigger, with 600,000 sq ft of retail space, White Rose was only two-thirds the size of Meadhowhall and much smaller than the biggest enclosed out-of-town mall, the Metro Centre in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.
Also, the new retail cluster had names which were different from what Morley and Leeds city centre were offering. Leeds had already gone down the upmarket, independent boutique route with Victoria Quarter and the Corn Exchange while Morley never had the kind of business which would directly compete with the likes of Debenhams or BHS.
Another positive impact was that 3,500 jobs were created in an area which had been hard-hit by the decline of traditional industries. That included the site on which the White Rose Centre was built – a former sewage works.
The 42 acre plot required millions of pounds of treatment to remove dangerous methane gas and flatten the hilly landscape. It was money which was more easily accessed from retail giants.
“If I had been a councillor at the time I would have opposed it,” admits Coun Dawson, “because there was a very real threat to local businesses. But these shopping centres are what they are and you can’t just remove them. If you could I wouldn’t be in favour of it with the White Rose Centre.
“Unlike other developments it hasn’t been too overwhelming, not like it was in Sheffield with Meadowhall. Besides, if retailing has evolved it isn’t just down to the White Rose Centre, there are other retail centres in the area and you have to accept that people’s shopping habits change.”
Now the White Rose Centre isn’t just pursuing retail, they’re also boosting the leisure offering too with plans to create a cinema on the site as well as extend some existing units. With hopes of the development being unveiled in 2015, subject to planning approval next year, it could create 800 to 1000 jobs on top of the existing 3,500.
Although the majority stakeholders in the centre, Land Securities, know they will have to make a convincing case to get the green light from council chiefs, they also know they don’t face quite the same level of opposition they faced 15 years ago.
Gerald Jennings is Land Securities’ portfolio director for the north of England and Scotland. Although he didn’t work for the company back in 1997, he did work for what was then the Burton group and the company knew that the White Rose Centre concept was a good proposition and they moved in straight away.
He said: “There was a big demand for retail space because, actually, Leeds wasn’t particularly growing at the time and there was no aspiration to increase the retail space in the city centre.
“Harvey Nichols had arrived in 1996 and there wasn’t an awful lot of activity after that – it was almost a case of: ‘Well we have the first Harvey Nichols outside of London so we don’t have to do a lot more.’
“But there was still this demand for space as we came out of recession. The demand from shoppers was there and stores wanted to meet that. So much so that, from the moment the centre opened, it was fully let.”
The bosses could easily have been happy with their lot as customers came through the doors at a steady rate, despite any underlying resentment. But Jennings and the team were determined to make sure the centre wasn’t just used but that it became a part of the south Leeds.
“When I came to the White Rose centre I was picking up a degree of hostility from people” said Jennings, “because it had adversely affected other parts of the city and local towns.
“So we decided to change the perception and turn it not just into a place where you went shopping for an hour and parked for free, but to make it much more of a destination, a place where people wanted to go because it offered something more.
“We were also somewhat inwards facing and, although we couldn’t physically change the architecture of the place by that stage, we could still connect with the local community, talk to them and work with them.”
Now, far from being at loggerheads with outside bodies, they now say they work hand in glove with the Morley Chamber of Trade, the Morley Literature Festival and the local St George’s Festival. And on top of offering space inside the centre for events and educational services, Land Securities support local charities such as St Gemma’s Hospice and have handed out over £170,000 in grants to organisations in the area.
Jennings said: “I think that meant that local people started to consider the fact that, an old sewage works that perhaps employed 100 people, now employs close to 3,500 people in south Leeds and provides something economic in the area.
“As a result I think we’ve not only become a kind of town centre in our own right but we’re genuinely now a part of the community too.”