South of the River – 2 4 6 8 Motorway

There was news this week that living near a main road increases the chances of dementia. If the findings of the study are correct and a causal link is proved it will be more bad news for South Leeds.

Fifty years ago, the great planners of Leeds decided to make Leeds the ‘Motorway City of the Seventies’. They drove the motorways through the very heart of Hunslet and Holbeck, when the M62 was added we were completely surrounded by a noose of blacktop. Thanks for that.

I was once driving back from London with friends, one of whom was blind and never visited Leeds before. As we swept down past Stourton he started to look a bit worried. Then we wound back to the right and he asked “Where are we? Why is the motorway twisting and turning like this?” I explained that in Leeds motorways went right to the heart of the city and had to dodge round the housing.

We are so used to living with them that we forget what an outrageous imposition it is.

There are the health problems. We suffer worse health than other parts of the city and exhaust fumes and diesel particulates can’t help with that. Belle Isle and Middleton have some of the highest smoking rates in the city. I don’t want to discourage any smoker who is trying to give up, especially if it was your New Year’s resolution, but given everything else we are breathing in – does smoking tobacco make much difference round here?

Then there’s the noise. I regularly walk my dog in Middleton Woods, it’s a real haven, very peaceful with just the chatter of birdsong. I say peaceful, you do have to tune out the hum of traffic. It’s not nearby, it’s not loud, but it’s always there in the background. Having lived here for thirty years, I’m pretty good at tuning it out and enjoying the wildlife.

And then there’s the social dislocation. I remember learning in school geography lessons why towns and cities grow up where they do – physical barriers, rivers, lowest bridging points and all that. Then we looked at a map of Peterborough, a city split in two by the railway and how it acted like a river that needed to be bridged.

To a large extent Leeds grew up around the railway, so having missed the opportunity to divide communities with steel, Leeds decided to use concrete. As well as splitting one community from another, for example Beeston from Hunslet; it redefined the geography of where people live.

The area around the city end of Dewsbury Road is a mess. It was Hunslet, the park is still called Hunslet Moor, as is the primary school. When I worked in housing, the council still called it West Hunslet. So why does everyone now call it Beeston? Because it’s on the Beeston side of the M621. Similarly, St Luke’s Church on Malvern Road used to be in Holbeck, but it’s not on the Holbeck side of the motorway so most people would say it’s now in Beeston.

Does all this really matter? Well you are playing with people’s sense of identity. More important than redefining where we live, driving a motorway through our community give people the message that they weren’t important and their lives didn’t matter as much other people’s. And then they wonder why people in South Leeds have low aspirations.

It’s good to see that the South Bank planning is prioritising people (pedestrians and cyclists) over cars and roads. One lesson they need to learn is that if they want the area to connect with its surrounding we need plenty of new motorway crossings as well as lovely river bridges.

I’ll be on back next week with more of my views from South of the River. If you’re on Twitter, you can follow me: @BeestonJeremy.


2 Replies to “South of the River – 2 4 6 8 Motorway”

  1. I grew up in the lower part of Beeston (below the park). We used to walk to our grandparents house in Armley with ease. A stroll through Holbeck and we were nearly there. The motorway meant that we had to take two buses; one into town and one out of town. This had an impact on the ability of a child to visit family in relative safety and of course free of busfares. Great piece Jeremy, thanks for jogging my memory.

  2. You’ve just touched upon my misgivings about HS2 (or is it 3?). I suspect it will disrupt rural communities far less than urban ones – an inconvenience rather than the life & community-changing constructions that the motorways have been for South Leeds. But what ARE the implications of HS2/3 (whatever) for South Leeds communities?

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