Leeds Waterfront Festival and the waterfront revival

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Leeds Waterfront Festival is helping generate a wave of optimism on the city’s South Bank. Neil Hudson reports

In just over a fortnight, one of the most tranquil parts of the city will be transformed into one of the most virbant.

What began eight years ago as a way of igniting interest in a long neglected part of Leeds could be on the brink of achieving what it set out to do - to transform the Leeds waterfront.

The two-day Leeds Waterfront Festival kicks off on June 27 with its most ambitious programme to date, with dozens of events happening right along the Leeds Liverpool Canal from Granary Wharf to The Calls and right through to Brewery Wharf.

Last year, an estimated 10,000 people visited the event and organisers hope to top that this year.

Lucy Whalley, from Allied London, which owns Leeds Dock, where there will be a folk and food festival, said this year’s festival marked a real turning point in the wider development of the waterfront.

“There will be all kinds of events, from a massive market, Zorbing, folk and ale events, all of the bars along the waterfront are getting behind it and on Saturday there will be the headline event, the dragon boat race, which already has more teams entered than last year.

“The market in particular will be a real draw for people. We already run a monthly market and this will be a vamped up version of that.”

But she added that after eight years, the festival was beginning to generate a greater interest in the waterfront in generral.

“There’s never been as much focus on Leeds South Bank. We feel at Leeds Dock that we are the catalyst for this change.

“It’s an incredible opportunity for Leeds - there can’t be many cities which have a vast swathe of land right in the centre which is ripe for development and the Leeds waterfront is key to that. It’s all eyes on Leeds.”

But we’ve heard all this before. Leeds Dock itself has undergone a number of rebrandings but despite being home to a sizeable population, is still regarded as a under-developed part of the city.

The closure two years ago of the Alea Casino, which was also home to James Martin’s Leeds Kitchen, came as a heavy blow. Other businesses have also come and gone.

That said, Allied London announced today they were on the brink of making a major announcement for the site, there’s a new bus connection - Service 70 - and work is ongoing to brighten up the area once dubed ‘a wasteland’.

Sue Jennings, from social enterprise OWL Industries, which runs sewing-based workshops and other events, has been helping to run the festival for the last two years.

She said: “Things are changing. We’re seeing more people getting to know the waterfront. I think we’ve done a great job in trying to raise the profile of the waterfront. It feels like people are now working together rather than in isolation.”

Former police officer Trevor Roberts is the director of Canal Connections, a social enterprise based at Thwaite Mills which runs canal boat trips for a wide range of groups, from schools and businesses to creative writing groups and photographic clubs.

He said he believed the Leeds waterfront was a massively underused resource.

“The waterfront in Leeds is a massive asset and at the moment we are probably only using it to about five per cent of its potential. At the moment, we don’t really appreciate it.”

But all that looks set to change in the near future as a number of regenation projects and new builds, including the new southern entrance to Leeds Train Station, which is seen as a key component of a wider development of the South Bank and a prelude to the High Speed 2 rail link terminal, which could be built nearby.

In addition to that, Leeds water taxis, launched last year on a trial basis, are now said to be working full time.

Trevor said: “It’s about trying to connect all the different sites on the waterfront and seeing them working together.

“The trips we run are very much about increasing engagement and raising self esteem. When I was in the police and I took a team on a boat trip, I noticed straight away how people change almost immediately - they were more relaxed and worked more as a team.

“I see that now still - people who are used to working in an office, within a few minutes of being on the water, they’re totally different.

“We got involved with Leeds Waterfront Festival last year and the feedback we got from that was very good.

“I think that compared to a few years ago the waterfront today has a totally different feel now, a more community feel and also a more cultural feel and that has come from all the different sites involved.”

There are also moves to revive the canal as a means of bringing in freight and Leeds City Council has already approved a site at Stourton which will do just that.

Next year will mark the bicentenary of the completion of the Leeds Liverpool Canal, one of the great engineering feats of its time and plans are already in place to make sure the anniversary does not pass unnoticed.

Trevor added: “Since we became involved with the festival, we’ve found that it’s not just a two day event, we are doing things all the time with community groups. I’m excited about the future.”