Two cheers for Holbeck

It has come a long way, but has Holbeck – that bit of Leeds immediately south of the railway line and the River Aire – really regenerated itself fully? Peter Baber finds out.

holbeckINSETWhen I first came to work in Leeds over a decade ago, the city felt it was very much taking a lead against other northern cities, particularly Manchester, in securing the first regional branch of Harvey Nichols.

The company I came to work for could also be said to be taking a lead. Ananova, a web company set up by the Press Association and subsequently sold to Orange for an impressive sum, had launched the world’s first avatar newsreader, also called Ananova, and known for her green punk-style hair.

The company had also made something of a departure in where it chose to locate. Not in the professional centre of the city, not even in the Calls, then still buzzing in the afterglow of Leslie Ash and Lee Chapman’s failed private club Teatro. No, not in either of those places, but in Holbeck.

In Marshall’s Mill, in fact, a large imposing former warehouse first named after Victorian industrialist John Marshall, who also built the famous Egyptian inspired Temple Mill next door.

It was, it now turns out, Orange’s presence in the building that first tempted another innovative company – property company Igloo Developments, which is famous for its regeneration projects right around the country – to invest in Marshall’s Mill when it came up for sale.

"Orange was the main reason we thought it was worth coming into Marshall's Mill in the first place,” Igloo chief executive Chris Brown said this year, “as it made us feel that if people like that felt comfortable moving here, it was worth investing in.” Even still, it was a bold choice to invest in Holbeck then.

The area might have been only a short walk from the railway station, and it might include some of the city’s most historically interesting buildings, including what purports to be the world’s very first industrial-scale steel forge, but back at the start of this century Holbeck had a very seedy reputation.

Orange employed the services of a minibus to take any female workers to the station if they were leaving after dark, such was the area’s reputation. Even an AA man who came to fix my car when it had broken down in Marshall’s Mill’s car park was propositioned by a lady of the night.

And you never wanted to go too far into the many derelict sites and open grassland in the area, for fear of what you might come across. The area, of course, has changed quite considerably for the better since then – for one thing the ladies of the night are all gone.

But is Holbeck really set to be Leeds’s thriving new creative suburb, perhaps Leeds’s answer to somewhere like Shoreditch in London, as so many people claim? Ten year’s after Igloo first invested in Marshall's Mill, as the company held a morning seminar to celebrate the anniversary, it was perhaps a fitting time to find out.

Within Marshall's Mill itself, there has clearly been change. Orange, having scaled down operations and Ananova (the green haired lady has gone to avatar heaven) moved out to Clarence Dock in 2010. Its absence has not been too keenly felt, however, as other creative and digital businesses, including TV production company True North Productions and market analytics company Flashtalking have moved in.

But what about the surrounding area? Although it wasn’t strictly aimed at the creative industries, by far the most prominent addition on the horizon – although not everyone’s cup of tea - is Bridgewater Place, now the tallest building in Yorkshire. When it opened in 2007 it quickly became the Leeds headquarters of Ernst & Young and Eversheds.

And when Jemella Group, the company behind what is perhaps Yorkshire’s most recent consumer manufacturing success story, GHD, moved into a space age new head office on the ground floor, it seemed to signal that Leeds business was indeed moving south.

Perhaps more relevant for the creative industries was the development further into Holbeck proper of the Round Foundry (the site of the famous steel forge) into a mixed use development that includes the Round Foundry Media Centre, a home for digital start-ups that, having been initially funded by Yorkshire Forward, is now under the wing of the Homes and Communities Agency.

Under proposals first put together through Yorkshire Forward’s Holbeck Urban Village scheme, there are still plans afoot to develop Tower Works, the site that includes two carbon copies of Italian Renaissance towers (they were nothing if not bold and imaginative, these Victorians).

And Igloo’s residential arm has now completed the Granary Wharf development of flats on the part of Holbeck that nestles up against Leeds station. But an area, of course, is much more than just buildings. What immediately grabs most people’s attention is the new cafes, restaurants and bars that have sprung up in the area.

Holbeck is beginning to become a destination in its own right, rather than somewhere people hurry by on the way to somewhere seemingly more attractive. Even Jamie Oliver has given his blessing to the Midnight Bell, one of the pubs that has sprung up along Water Lane. (It features in his TV series and book, Jamie’s Great Britain.)

It is no doubt this sense of conviviality that has most recently attracted marketing agency Elmwood to relocate to the Round Foundry. The agency, one of the most high profile in the Yorkshire region, had for the past two decades been nestling in the leafy suburb of Guiseley, although it had been looking for a new office for five of those years.

Chairman Jonathan Sands said the agency felt it was important to move further into the city centre both to make it more convenient for clients and to attract new talent which might not feel at home in the suburbs. But it wanted to make sure it found a place that had the right culture. He believes he has in Holbeck.

“The area is an exciting place where many of the city’s most interesting companies work cheek by jowl,” he said.

“We have put our own particular stamp on our new, modern, flexible space, located in the heart of fantastic, historic mill buildings which are full of character.

"Our office culture is very open and personable and this area was a natural fit, humming with an energy and vibe which extends beyond the building’s walls. It seems like quite a bit of business is done in the fantastic bars and cafes here, which suits us down to the ground.”

And yet, none other than Chris Brown himself, the chief executive of Igloo, has some concerns about the pace of change. “This was always a ten-year vision,” he told BQ, “and we always know that regulations take a long time so it is inevitable that we would go through a recession while we were developing Holbeck.

"But we did think public sector support for Holbeck, particularly from the council, would have been stronger. Fortunately we now have Tom Riordan [Leeds City Council chief executive] in place, and things are starting to get going.”

His most niggling criticism is what he sees as relatively quick wins that were missed that could have made such a difference to the pace of change. For example, four years ago a bridge was built across the River Aire connecting the south side of the river to the Whitehall Road area.

But no bridge has yet been built across the Leeds & Liverpool Canal, which would have then made the connection to Holbeck complete. As a result, a walk from the Whitehall Road area to Holbeck still takes around 20 minutes when it could take five.

“It is little things like that that might save us from having to swim over the canal,” Brown joked. Even more of a niggle is the long saga of giving the station a southern entrance – something that has been talked about for well over a decade now.

"Holbeck may be near the station, but for the moment anyone wanting to walk to it has to walk right around and through Neville Street underpass to gain access to a station entrance, even though most of that walk is along the outside edge of the platform.

"If it’s late at night, you have to walk even further. Tom Riordan, who was also at the Marshalls Mill meeting, said he believes the southern entrance may now be just two or three years away.

“We have transformed our relationship with Network Rail from the point where we were slugging it out in a tennis match to where we are playing doubles with them,” he said.

But Brown clearly isn’t too enamoured with Network Rail at all. Looking out of the window at Marshalls Mill, you can see a railway viaduct that sets off from the station virtually down to the Leeds United Football Ground at Elland Road.

Almost all of the arches underneath the structure, which belongs to Network Rail, are currently vacant – and Brown thinks that is a scandal.

He thinks the arches could be providing valuable space for start-up businesses, while the viaduct could be turned into a walkway, similar to the High Line in New York or the Promenade Planteé in Paris, both of which are former public transport lines that have been turned into “greenways”.

“Just think of the contribution that viaduct could be making to this place,” he told the meeting.

“Lots of the sites that should be developed here are owned by parts of government.” He is equally disheartened that, ten years into the remaking of Holbeck, so many private sites also remain derelict wasteland.

“I don’t understand why landowners think it is acceptable to leave sites in the way some of them have in Holbeck,” he said.

He believes that many of these sites were bought up by private speculators at the height of the property boom, and they have now turned them into car parks. These car parks, however, do serve a function in providing relatively cheap all-day parking to the companies that choose to locate here.

Both Dan Freeman from Flashtalking and Carol McKenzie from True North Productions mentioned ample parking as something that attracted them to the area. Brown, who is relatively rare within the property industry in not having his own car at all, is unimpressed.

“I don’t think parking is crucial. I sometimes wonder if these site owners are waiting for things to deteriorate so badly that the council will let them do anything,” he said.

In response, Riordan pointed out that it was always more tricky to progress with such plans in a recession, particularly when the council had had to stomach cuts of £45m and 3,000 redundancies in two years.

He also admitted that as a newcomer – he only took on his current role in 2008 – he was often being urged to make his own mark, and “sometimes the hardest thing to do is to take on things that are half way through”, like Holbeck’s regeneration.

Nevertheless, he said: “If you think about where the city has grown, there is only one answer to future growth, and that is from the railway line south of the city. This area is the future of Leeds, because despite us being in the worst economic climate that any of us have experienced, investment here is happening.”

He puts particularly strong faith in the network of pipes and network cables that criss-cross the area beneath street level, and have done so since well before Freeserve, the country’s first ISP, was founded in the area.

Data company AQL was one of the company’s taking advantage of this network to improve connectivity across the city, he said, both in an existing data centre in Salem Church and in a proposed new centre on the former Yorkshire Chemicals site.

Leeds City Council has now approved the latter proposal. Such an idea clearly has support. Freeserve founder Ajaz Ahmed, who also spoke at the meeting, said Leeds could parry with the best cities in the world when it came to digital technology.

He said he was sick of hearing other regions in the country describe themselves as “silicon whatever”. “Just because you call yourself that, it doesn’t mean that you are,” he said.

“In Holbeck we don’t call ourselves silicon anything, but we still have a large number of technology companies here.”

Brown agreed, and like, Ahmed, said the main thing to do was to make more of a song and dance about such progress.

“The Government thinks technology is something sexy that happens around Silicon Roundabout in London,” he said. “We need to show them that it can happen in Leeds.”