South of the River – The Imagined Village

A press release landed in my In Box this week saying that the Marshalls Mill complex in Holbeck Urban Village, or Holbeck as most of you know it, was fully let for the first time since it was redeveloped 15 years ago.

It doesn’t sound riveting reading and we decided not to run the story, but it does reveal some interesting things about the (South) Leeds economy.

Let’s start with the controversy over Holbeck Urban Village. If you remember, that part of Holbeck – Water Lane, Marshall Street, Sweet Street – was pretty grim back in the late 1990s. There was not a lot going on, just lots of empty run down buildings. But it contained some real gems and buildings of immense historical significance.

Holbeck saw the birth of the Industrial Revolution. Matthew Murray’s Round Foundry was the first integrated factory in the world. Raw materials came in and finished products came out. I would have loved the state to step in, save the buildings, create a museum and so forth, but it was highly unlikely to happen in the 1990s, even less so now.

The next best thing was to attract developers into the area to save the buildings and repurpose them for the 21st century. To help that happen Leeds City Council set out a plan for area, guiding how it should develop. And yes, it gave it a poncey name ‘Holbeck Urban Village’, but so what if it brought the investment in?

The worst thing that happened to the Urban Village idea was not the name, but the recession. Just as it was building a head of steam … everything stopped. I used to play a game with my daughter riding on the bus into town: how many cranes can you count on the skyline? One day they had all gone.

People looked at the first phase of development and said “Is that it?” They criticised an investment that didn’t benefit the existing people of Holbeck, they criticised the fact that it was completely separate from the rest of Holbeck.

These criticisms are accurate, but miss the point. Although there’s been little building for the last 8 years, it is still a work in progress. They could have started closer to the residential parts of Holbeck, but if you are trying to entice developers to an unfashionable area, the proximity of the city centre is an important selling point. Plus there were some very important buildings in need of urgent attention at the Water Lane end.

So as the cranes start to reappear lets look at that press release again, Marshalls Mill is fully let. The details of the letting deals tells an interesting story. Three companies, already based in the area, expanding their businesses and taking on more staff.

The vision for Holbeck Urban Village was to create a ‘digital hub’. A local authority cannot do that on its own, but it can create infrastructure and guide development to create a place that is suitable for a digital hub to establish.

Some of you are no doubt wondering what, exactly, a digital hub is. I can’t give you a one-sentence answer, but it’s about a cluster of companies all working in computer based industries. The idea is that people come and set up new businesses and then grow. They area gets a buzz because people from different companies are meeting and sparking new ideas. A bit like Silicon Valley in California.

Well, speak it very quietly, it seems to be working. The three companies at Marshalls Mill are involved in TV production, brand design and media communications. And they are part of a bigger picture of digital industry in the city. Shout it loud, Leeds is rather good at digital industry.

This is a good news story happening here in Holbeck. OK so there’s still acres of dereliction between the Village and Holbeck proper, but I foresee (barring a bad Brexit) a march of cranes across the area. Planning applications have been coming through for some months now and as far as we know the Burberry deal is still on track.

The issue now is how do we make sure the whole community benefits from this growth? The number one issue must be jobs. We need to make sure that children coming out of our schools are in a position to challenge for jobs ion this new industry. That doesn’t just mean ICT classes at high school, it means good basic skills in English and Maths and it means using things like Raspberry Pi to get kids enthused about coding.

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.