How Leeds Avoided becoming a ‘motorway city’

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living buildings: are our lives defined by architecture or is it our lifestyle which determines how we use our buildings? Neil Hudson looks back at 50 years of change in LEeds.

The centRe of Leeds has changed remarkably in the last 50 years - the buildings we have today reflect the changes in our lifestyles, says Dr Kevin Grady, director of Leeds Civic Trust.

“One of the biggest changes in Leeds is the way in which we now view buildings of Victorian and Edwardian origin, because in the 1960s they were being torn down with enthusiasm.

“Over the last half century, particularly during the 1980s, we have developed a greater appreciation of these buildings and, indeed, we now celebrate them as some of the great assets of the city.

“Running in tandem with that, we have also seen a greater appreciation of the architecture of our buildings, which, during the 1960s, were mostly covered in soot, so their details were lost. Clean Air Acts and SMoke Control Acts meant that when they were cleaned in the 1970s, the architectural detail was uncovered, Leeds Town Hall being a prime example.”

But it was the Civic Amenities Act of 1967 which ushered in a new era for the preservation of existing buildings, enabling councils to establish conservation areas, of which there are some 60 in Leeds.

However, Leeds narrowly avoided becoming a city whose centre was criss-crossed by dual carriageways, the plan being to allow cars on the ground and pedestrians on raised walkways, examples of which can still be seen, in particular on the Bank Of England building on King Street, which still has its raised pedestrian platform suspended above the ground.

The publication of the Buchanan Report in November 1963 discussed traffic in city centres and Leeds was used as an example. He recommended a two-tier system with cars on the ground and pedestrians above.

The report was commissioned by the government of the day. At the time, Britain was still rebuilding following the end of the Second World War and the growth of the motor industry was seen as a key driver for the economy.

The policies outlined in the report shaped the development of the urban landscape in the UK and some other countries for two or three decades. Unusually for a technical policy report, it was so much in demand that Penguin abridged it and republished it as a book in 1964.

Dr Grady said: “There was going to be a road of motorway proportions running past the town hall, along with two others. The scheme, called The Leeds Approach, would have done away with the Corn Exchange altogether. We had a narrow escape really.”

That Leeds did manage to avoid having its city centre dominated by urban motorways owes much to the creation of the inner ring road - a huge undertaking in itself which required the demolition of large tracts of the city. Indeed, such was the prowess in completing the project that when the underpass was finished, a dinner party was held inside it, complete with silver service.

Perhaps one of the biggest changes was the pedestrianisation of the city centre the closing of Briggate to traffic.

“If you were on Briggate in the 1960s,” said Dr Grady, “you would have seen traffic going down Commercial Street and Briggate.

“Another change has been that of housing. The 1960s and 70s saw the great mass slum clearances in Leeds, which swept away whole communities.

“While this was applauded generally many people were very attached to their communities and it was only through large scale protests that a more sensitive approach was adopted.”

Old pictures of Leeds do exist showing ordinary back-to-back houses running around the streets near the Civic Hall and beyond. Leeds was a network of back alleys and yards, a warren of passageways where people lived glove in hand with the businesses which provided them with their living. There were even slaughterhouses tucked away in some of the paved courtyards, their stones running red with the blood of animals recently butchered.

But change continues even today, a prime example being the ongoing demolition of the old Yorkshire Post building on Wellington Street.

When it was put up in the 1970s, the managers of the newspaper group envisaged it would stand for around 100 years and while some today may bemoan its passing and consider it a piece of history worth preserving, in its day it was the cutting edge of technology and even it replaced something much older in the form of Bean Ing Mills.

Developed by Benjamin Gott, it was one of the first large scale mill manufacturing sites in the country and it dated back to 1792, the largest building being added in 1829. During the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, it was a large supplier of blankets to the British Army.

It was torn down without mercy in the 1960s to make was for the Yorkshire Post and its controversial ‘brutalist’ architecture.

Dr Grady observed: “It could be that in 20 or 30 years time, we look back and think, why did we pull all those concrete buildings down? I think there was an argument to have saved the former Leeds International Swimming Pool.”

Another social trend which has also seen a corresponding change in the way we use our buildings - the emergence and growth of cafe culture.

Dr Grady said: “If you were to come to Leeds in the Sixties and say that people in the future would be sitting outside shops, often in relatively cold weather, drinking coffee, they would look at you twice.

“There were very few restaurants in Leeds at that time. I came here as a student in 1969 and recall there being about two or three places where you could get a cup of tea. Of course, that’s all changed.”

He went on: “Then there is the birth of the modern shopping centre, the Merrion Centre, which was one of the first such centres in the country, has just marked its 50th anniversary. In the beginning, it wasn’t covered as it is now but it lead to the creation of others in the city and that went hand in hand with the shift away from manufacturing, which was largely south of the river, to a society based on business services. Go south of the river today and you will see lots of roads but also lots of gaps and empty abandoned factories.

“There’s also been a big expansion of the education system in Leeds and there was the creation of Leeds Polytechnic, which became Leeds Metropolitan University.”

Together with the University of Leeds, it bolsters the Leeds population by around 60,000 every year.

But it was not just the city centre which experienced change - outlying towns have also undergone dramatic transformation, the most brutal of which took place in Bramley, it’s old cobbled streets - comparable in design to those of Horsforth - mercilessly bulldozed and replaced with a 1960s block of concrete which has never really endeared itself to the local populace. Combined with a series of large-scale housing developments, the quaint character of Bramley was altered forever, the only remnants of its whimsical past being the stone horse troughs which stare out forlornly opposite the grim concrete facade of the towering shopping plaza.

The pace of change never lets up, or so it would seem. Aside from the redevelopment of the Yorkshire Post site, there are numerous projects ongoing across the city, not least of which is the creation of a new Leeds College of Building on the former Tetley site, a project which will come to fruition in January next year and it is hoped will kickstart the regeneration of the entire south bank, being a magnet for other businesses and also housing developers.

New office blocks are being erected at Wellington Place, Queen Street and Park Place to name but a few, not forgetting the plans to create new modernist buildings on Wellington Street - at the old Lumier site - and a new entrance to Leeds Station.

Stephen Ewen, 62, of Cookridge, who died of sepsis in 2017.

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