Aisha Iqbal: 2023 reasons for saving Leeds’s Temple Mill?

Temple Mill, Marshall Street, Holbeck, Leeds.
Temple Mill, Marshall Street, Holbeck, Leeds.
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Just a few weeks ago, I wrote in this very column that I wasn’t sure about the fuss being made about fashion brand Burberry’s apparent pulling out of plans to restore the historic Temple Mill in Holbeck as part of a factory project.

Heritage campaigners were, as they often tend to be in such matters, up in arms.

I argued at the time that I - as someone with no real emotional investment in the building - could quite happily see it knocked down and replaced with a beautiful, imaginative and iconic new design which could really put the city’s South Bank vision on the map, a view understandably not shared by everyone.

I’ve not suddenly fallen in desperate love with the building, even though I do appreciate the sentiments of those who are passionate about it and its architectural and historic merits.

However something has perturbed me about recent developments in this saga.

Am I the only one who feels slightly insulted by the news this week that Temple Mill is to be auctioned, with a reserve price of just £1?

ONE POUND? For something that many knowledgeable and passionate people see as a glorious and iconic piece of our heritage?

By the way I had an interesting exchange with the good people at Leeds Civic Hall over this issue. The simple question ‘who owns the building?’ seems to have left many people scratching their heads, including me.

Turns out it is ultimately owned by Shop Direct – which is itself owned by the junior Barclay brothers.

The lengthy audit trail also mentions several other companies and leads back to Aidan Barclay and Howard Barclay. Yes, THOSE Barclays.

It seems this crumbling relic/magnificent piece of our history (delete as appropriate) has become a potential headache for some big vested interests, and that’s why it’s being - seemingly - so unceremoniously dumped from the portfolio,

People in the know tell me that whoever takes it on is potentially looking at having to shell out £20m to make the building fit for purpose, and that’s the kind of money the under-pressure public sector just doesn’t have lying around. Leeds City Council certainly doesn’t.

Fortune favours the brave, but in this case, the brave will need an already bulging big bank account alongside their verve.

Now, who do we think might have one of those??? This is beginning to sound like a tragi-comedy.

I’m not sure where the fault - and Temple Mill’s uncertain fate - lies ultimately.

But it doesn’t help that the owners seem to have been extremely hands off with their attitude to this cherished slice of Leeds history.

I also fear this whole saga has been littered with ego trips and leading of people up the garden path.

I have sympathy with Burberry’s decision to let its first option on Temple Mill lapse, but at the same time, I fear that some influential people might have been a little foolish and overly optimistic.

The council has been so busy harping on about Burberry this and Burberry that, it forgot to actually prepare for this scenario.

To be fair to the authority, it doesn’t have any real power here, and it was only ever the mediator in all of this, doing what it could to promote the merits of the building and its undeniable potential.

But does anyone else feel that ego trips might have got in the way somewhere - and a few important points missed?

Here’s another thing. Up to last year, the building was being run very successfully as an arts centre and event space.

The team of utterly devoted people who ran it as a social enterprise did so purely out of passion.

But once it became clear that Burberry MIGHT be interested in the site, the keys were taken back.

Imagine if the same or a similar group could be convinced to make the leap again at next month’s auction?

Temple Mill might not return to its former complete glory anytime soon, but the journey could be an amazing one.

Under the Temple Works Leeds project, a stream of international artists were regularly knocking on the door to showcase their creativity in a unique, history-steeped setting.

And as the city gears up for its European Capital of Culture bid, wouldn’t it be amazing if this Egyptian inspired ‘temple’ could become the focal point of our hoped-for year in the international cultural spotlight?

The city is crying out for such a venue. And with one of the key themes of the #Leeds 2023 bid being the concept of ‘room’, what better way to make what was once considered the world’s biggest single room at the centre?

Perhaps it’s time for someone to start a crowdfunding appeal.

There are 2023 reasons why it could be a winner.

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