How a Wakefield entrepreneur is creating the world’s best hub for live events production
Sitting in his office at Production Park In West Yorkshire, Lee Brooks is excited; after a long Covid-related delay, a large consignment of steel has just arrived. It may seem like a mundane source of joy for someone who jets around the world and deals with the likes of Beyoncé, Coldplay and Muse, but to him it’s a big deal – it means the next phase of the park’s expansion can finally go ahead. Expansion which could make it the biggest facility of its kind in the world.
Brooks co-founded Production Park on four acres of land in South Kirkby in 2015 as a home for the live events industry, where top-tier performers could create touring stage shows that work faultlessly, designed and put together by the best in the business. It now employs 60 people directly and 500 more through its tenant companies, which are all part of the entertainment ecosystem.
Such is the expertise gathered there that it has even been called the “Pinewood of the North”, after the famous film studios outside London – a comparison Brooks says is “flattering”. It now covers 24 acres, but he says there’s plenty of room for growth.
“The real future vision is for another 30-100 acres of potential expandable space at the south end of the industrial estate – that’s our vision for the next 10 years. In terms of footprint, the project is potentially even bigger than Pinewood, bigger than Media City [in Salford].”
The expansion includes the Centre for Virtual Production, which includes Yorkshire’s first Extended Reality (XR) studio, and even more impressively, XPLOR, the world’s first R&D centre for entertainment technology and production, part-funded by the last tranche of the European Union’s ERDF money.
“With the benefit of funding, we’re doing everything from local business innovation support, through to doing globally interesting projects in entertainment technology, and when we get the building finished and opened in summer of next year, we can take that onto a totally different level,” he says.
“So often in the industry we do a one-off spectacular and then go off and do something else. But it’s possible to create something that should become a repeat revenue stream, and that’s what we want to support industry to do, from XPLOR.”
Central to Production Park’s whole ethos – “fundamental”, says Brooks – is Backstage Academy, which offers short courses as well as undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in live events management and technology, accredited by the University of Bolton. He sees this as crucially important because of an impending skills shortage that he describes as a “ticking time-bomb”.
“A lot of the people producing those shows – Rolling Stones or Coldplay – are senior, 50-plus years old at least, and there is a talent gap. It’s been a first-generation industry, and it hasn’t come up, prior to this, with a way of growing that future talent.”
The park works hard to engage with young people and foster enthusiasm for the industry, but, says Brooks, there is an image problem to overcome. Live events are seen as a fabulous source of entertainment, but not of good careers – a misconception he is keen to overturn.
“With entertainment technology, there’s a tendency for people to look at the band on stage and the people in black T-shirts around them, and think it’s not a particularly professional career – that it’s just running away with the circus.
“But when you explain that those same technicians can put on the London Olympics opening ceremony, as we did, or Cirque du Soleil in the Royal Albert Hall, or they can support the production of the British Grand Prix, or the World Cup Final, and they see it differently.”
It is the emphasis on education that he sees as the park’s great differentiator, and, size apart, what will ultimately set it apart from the likes of Pinewood and Media City.
As a point of comparison, he prefers the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre in Sheffield, a world-leading hub of technical excellence with resident companies including Boeing, Rolls-Royce and McLaren, and the University of Sheffield’s intellectual muscle at its core.
“That’s a model we can relate to a lot more than Pinewood,” says Brooks. “In terms of live events, we don’t really have competitors, because we focus on live events. For me, that’s at the very apex of technical creative complexity. That’s where we’re focused as a park and there is none other like us in the UK or Europe – and certainly not with a university centre at its heart.”
Ultimately, he wants to ensure the UK remains pre-eminent in an industry that is growing at pace worldwide.
“The prowess of British live events technical crews is internationally acknowledged,” he says. “If you go into any arena around the world, you’ll hear British accents. At the moment, we’re still leading, but we’ve got to make sure we try and keep that position.”
Bigger than Pinewood and the best in the world – it might sound slightly unlikely for a cluster of buildings in the West Yorkshire borderlands. Then again, Brooks was named by The Times as One to Watch in the LDC Top 50 Most Ambitious Business Leaders ranking last month, so if anyone can pull it off, he probably can.
“When it’s cloudy and rainy and you’re talking about creating a world-leading technology campus, you’d probably agree it seems overly ambitious,” he says. “But I don’t think it is. If we carry on as we are for the next decade, then it’s all totally doable. That’s where we intend to get to.”
CV: Lee Brooks
Lee Brooks was born and grew up in Wakefield, and was educated at Crofton High School [now Crofton Academy].
After graduating from Oxford Brookes University with a mechanical engineering degree, he worked as a trainee design engineer with Formula One team TWR Arrows Grand Prix.
Following a two-year stint as a design engineer for Alternative Access Ltd in Sheffield, he returned to Wakefield and worked for his father’s aluminium fabrication company, Lite Structures Ltd, becoming sales director.
He then moved to Dutch firm Prolyte, establishing its UK arm and acquiring Brilliant Stages in 2012.
He left Prolyte in 2014, taking Brilliant Stages with him, and co-founded Production Park on the industrial site first developed by his father.
Brilliant Stages was bought in 2019 by US company Tait, which is now an anchor tenant.
Production Park now employs about 60 people directly and its tenants employ another 500 people.
Mr Brooks is also a member of the Creative Industries Council.