An article written by William Gaunt, joint managing director of Edwin Woodhouse, the developers of the award-winning Sunny Bank Mills in Farsley, for The Yorkshire Post
Is Leeds on the cusp of a cultural renaissance? Is the decision by Channel 4 to base their headquarters in the city the beginning of a wave of creative businesses arriving to tap into the city’s talent? Certainly every cloud has a sliver lining: the doomed bid for Leeds to become European Capital of Culture in 2023 has galvanized the city’s arts and cultural leaders to make sure that the momentum created is not dissipated and the focus on culture is not lost.
During the process of pulling together a bid for 2023 there was the realisation that, whilst Leeds had fine examples of artistic excellence, there was a lack of cohesion and strategic direction across the city. If Leeds was to be taken seriously, with its a rich and diverse cultural heritage, then there needed to be a clear set of ambitions to follow, a bringing together of arts organizations for collaboration, joined up thinking and leadership and most importantly Culture needed to be put at the centre of everything the city did, whether that is development, education, work or play.
To that end, Leeds City Council undertook a vast consultation exercise to find out what the city considered its cultural assets to be? What place culture had in Leeds? And how it could be nurtured? Out of all these city wide conversations, the Leeds Cultural Strategy (2017-2030) emerged and this was adopted by the council in July 2017. This was the first time that Leeds as a city had a coherent vision for culture, and it paved the way for a focused plan to develop culture in the city.
There is now a great opportunity to put culture into the heart of the latest swathe of developments that are already lined up; the South Bank, the Waterside and new housing to the east of Leeds. Culture needs to be considered right at the start of any development. Integrating the Leeds Culture Strategy into the planning process would be a great step forward, making a clear statement of intent that Leeds wants quality developments that enhance the city on multiple levels.
One sure fire way of ensuring that Leeds’ cultural offer is enhanced is to embed culture in the heart of the development process. If every development in the city was asked to consider how it could include cultural elements into its scheme for the outset then Leeds would be truly moving away from its gritty industrial past and become a better place to live, work, play and visit. Developers should not need much convincing that a cultural offer will improve their scheme.
Better green spaces, vibrant places that are populated both day and night, places that reflect and celebrate their community’s roots, all lead to higher values and projects that bring more than the bare objective of more homes or office space. The world is becoming more sophisticated and, quite rightly we demand better developments than some of those anodyne spaces delivered in the past. The city is in a liminal space and it needs to grasp the opportunity to become a capital of European culture despite the EU’s tantrum of expelling us from the chance of official recognition as such.
In that context, we are proud of what we have achieved at Sunny Bank Mills, our 19th century family mill in the heart of Farsley, between Leeds and Bradford. The establishment of the Sunny Bank Mills Gallery was a pivotal moment in the regeneration of the mills. Not only did we have artists queuing up for the opportunity to finally get their work in front of an audience in the city, but we attracted talented individuals, who were passionate about making something happen in their community.
The cultural activities at Sunny Bank Mills have, without doubt, enhanced our offer. The mill has a steady stream of visitors who go out and promote the Sunny Bank story. The whole community has been lifted by the regeneration, and Farsley is now a desirable place to live with one of the fastest moving property markets in Leeds. Our business community is diverse and growing. We have no problems winning new tenants as more space is released on to the market. Now Sunny Bank Mills is well-known throughout the city and has a distinct, unique identity. We would be so proud if our work at Sunny Bank Mills resulted in cultural considerations becoming an intrinsic part of the planning and development process. Leeds City Council – over to you.