Wakefield has a proud industrial past. Yet while its buildings remain, the prosperity that the city’s factories and mills once generated has long disappeared.
According to a recent report by Centre for Cities, Wakefield has experienced some of the harshest reductions in council spending across the UK. Indeed, the city has the dubious honour of experiencing the fourth most cuts among British cities since 2009.
The Leader of Wakefield Council, Peter Box, said the report “came as no surprise to members of this council or local people”. Since the onset of austerity, Wakefield’s central government funding has been “decimated”, he adds; 53 percent of funds have been wiped out since 2009.
The question looming over the West Yorkshire city is a familiar one: how to reinvigorate the flagging local economy of a deindustrialised Northern conurbation. Evidence suggests that answers will not come from Westminster.
Almost five years since George Osborne debuted his transformative Northern Powerhouse strategy, deprived villages, towns and cities are still awaiting the former chancellor's prosperous utopia.
Yet Osborne’s Northern vision wasn’t the first of its kind. An early-noughties initiative in Wakefield that proposed reinventing the city’s waterfront was similarly optimistic in its outlook.
What began as a multimillion pound venture to create a desirable tourist destination in Wakefieldhas since left many long-abandoned industrial buildings unchanged and various new, purpose-built structures devoid of use.
But there is one kernel of hope in the Wakefield Waterfront dream: the Hepworth gallery, which earnt its name from former Wakefield resident Barbara Hepworth. Since opening in 2011 it has worked continuously to attract top-class artworks and regional investment.
The gallery remains true to its founding aim of encouraging local regeneration. Its new project, The Hepworth Wakefield Garden, is set to create one of the UK’s largest free, public gardens.
The garden’s blueprint was the brainchild of designer Tom Stuart-Smith. It is expected to cost around £1.8 million, and has been reliant on charitable, arts and public funding to reach the point of construction.
To support the venture, Wakefield Council are leasing the site to the gallery at a slow rate – in perhaps the greatest show of solidarity its purse strings can allow.
The move is something the Hepworth hasn’t taken for granted. “It’s no secret that local governments across the country are having a tough time, and need to think very cleverly about where they invest their funds,” Olivia Colling, The Hepworth’s Director of Communications & Development, noted.
Colling is also under no illusions as to why the gallery’s immediate vicinity has struggled in the past decade. “Originally, the Wakefield Waterfront site was all supposed to be developed,” she explained.
“2008 arrived, and obviously the crash happened. This meant that only the gallery appeared.”
Colling and others have wanted the gallery to help improve Wakefield’s fortunes since it opened. But as Colling acknowledged: “It’s quite hard for us to do that on our own.”
So there is renewed optimism in the Hepworth offices about the potential renovation of Wakefield’s Rutland Mills site adjacent to the garden plot, which has stood empty since 1999. The plan is to develop the mills into a range of shops, bars and restaurants. London-based firm Tileyard Studios, which is behind the new plans, claim as many as 800 jobs could be created as the three-phase scheme is rolled out.
The Navigation Walk development, a similar endeavor located metres from the Hepworth, points to the need for caution. One or two office spaces are utilised, but the signs advertising opportunities for cafés, restaurants or shops have faded over years of vacancy – very much like the units themselves.
If Wakefield’s tumultuous drive towards a redeveloped waterfront teaches us anything, it’s that it is impossible to predict how well a project will progress from initial design to final delivery.
But there is an optimistic sense that this latest project will do more than any central government or sandbagged local authority ever could. If it’s successful, visitors to Wakefield may yet see that it doesn’t need to be grim up north.