Holbeck: Signs of revival

PIC: Simon Hulme
PIC: Simon Hulme
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Holbeck was once the beating heart of Leeds. Neil Hudson talks to those who want to make it so again.

Two years from now the people of Holbeck could be given a chance to vote on a planning blueprint which its authors hope will help turn the area into one of the city’s most sought after places to live.

The great hope is it will bring to fruition a process which began almost 20 years ago, when the are was designated an ‘urban village’ in 1999.

The document, known as the neighbourhood improvement plan, is nothing if not ambitious in scope but those behind it are fully aware of the uphill struggle they face, both in terms of ridding the area of some of its well known problems and overcoming years of negative perceptions.

Turn the clock back 200 years and Holbeck was ‘the beating heart’ of Leeds – it was a powerhouse which nurtured innovation, grew industry and, some would argue, made Leeds the city it is today. Activities such as flax spinning, iron casting and machine manufacturing were carried out in a range of steam-powered mills and workshops. The legacy of those halcyon days stand as great monuments from a bygone age.

But when the old industries disappeared, many of these landmarks – Holbeck Viaduct, Temple Mill with its Egyptian facade, Marshall’s Mill and Tower Works with its three iconic Italian-style towers, were forgotten or underused, waiting to be rediscovered. Some, of course, already have – Granary Wharf and The 
Round Foundry Media Centre to name but two and a host of schemes currently under consideration.

Ian Pickup is a member of Holbeck in Bloom and one of the people helping plant the seeds for what he and others hope will be a regrowth of the area, putting its rich industrial and architectural history centre stage.

“Holbeck has so much going for it and we want to make sure that in the future, the way it develops benefits the area and the people who live there. We’re in the process of drawing up a neighbourhood improvement plan, which, if the people of Holbeck agree, will be adopted by the council so that when developers submit schemes, they will have to refer back to this document.

“The viaduct is a prime example, we’d like to see it turned into a new route for people to get into the city, something along the lines of the New York High Line.”

The High Line, an elevated train track in New York which opened in the 1930s but closed in the 1980s and faced demolition until a friends group successfully lobbied for its preservation, is today an attractive urban pedestrian space and Leeds could have its very own version.

It’s the sort of project which would certainly turn heads, not to mention boost property prices. But even before the planning document is finalised, the wheels of progress are already in motion.

Ian and his colleagues have been successful in securing funding to install a series of ‘finger posts’, directing people to the various landmarks and areas of interest, with an ‘interpretation board’ close to St Matthew’s Church and just a stone’s throw from the monument to Matthew Murray, who designed and built the world’s first commercially viable steam engine and who is one of the village’s most famous adoptive sons.

Some of the first new council houses to be built in Leeds in decades are in Holbeck and include 103 properties, comprising a mix of flats, two, three and four-bed properties.

Ian added there are also plans in train to change the name – and use – of Holbeck Working Men’s Club, which was founded in 1871 and is one of the oldest in the country, rebranding it as ‘The Holbeck’ and giving it a wider community use.

And this week construction company Carillion was named as preferred bidder for The Engine House, Tower Works, with plans to restore the Grade II Listed building and create a cinema and microbrewery in Holbeck Urban Village.

There are also plans to bring Temple Mill back into use and make better use of the numerous ‘gap sites’ which abound. One of those is the former catalogue distribution site off Marshall Street,a 7.5-acre plot which could take up to 800 new flats, although Ian says he would prefer to see a new health centre and supermarket there.

“It’s looking really good for Holbeck. At the moment, property prices here are still relatively low but if all these plans come off, it will be one of the most sought after places to live in Leeds. It’s got everything going for it, from its motorway links to the fact it’s just 10 minutes walk from the city.”

Dennis Kitchen is chairman of the neighbourhood forum and is also involved in the improvement plan.

He said: “If approved by the people of Holbeck then developers will have to refer to it. One thing we are looking is accessing money to improve all the shopfronts on Domestic Street. They did a similar thing in Chapeltown and it worked well. Another is to slow and reduce traffic through the village. Holbeck has been in decline for a long time but we’ve always maintained it is a nice place.”

Councillor Angela Gabriel (Lab, Beeston & Holbeck) is also enthusiastic about the future for Holbeck: “The idea behind this is that the community can secure the things it wants in terms of housing and business.

“We’ve big hopes for Holbeck. It’s changing and changing for the better.”


The name Holbeck is thought to date back to the 12th Century and means ‘hollow by the beck’

Holbeck was at the heart of the Industrial Revolution but it also had its problems – in 1834 it was described as “the most crowded, most filthy and unhealthy village in the country.” Suffice to say, things have improved considerably since then.

The world’s first viable steam locomotive, the twin cylinder Salamanca, designed by Matthew Murray, was built in 1812.

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