In Wakefield, regeneration is reliant on charity funding

Artist’s impression of the Hepworth Wakefield Garden. Image: Tom Stuart-Smith

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.


Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would agree on one thing: we need more social housing

Unite d’Habitation, Marseille. Image: Iantomferry/Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written in CityMetric and beyond about the urban planning debates of the 1950s and ‘60s, that came to be characterised as a battle between master-planning and preservation. One side of the debate was personified by the father of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, whilst the counter-argument was advanced by writer and journalist Jane Jacobs.

But when it comes to London’s housing crisis, aren’t there a few things that these two would actually agree on?

Jane Jacobs’ writing about the organic nature of self-organising communities, demonstrated, in her words, by the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of inner city neighbourhoods, should be required reading for anyone interested in how cities function. But today, Jacobs is increasingly invoked in attempts to oppose new developments of any kind. Her role in conceiving Manhattan’s West Village Houses, a low cost rented housing scheme built through New York State’s Mitchell-Lama Program, is unfortunately much less well known. It’s been suggested that if Jacobs were around today, she’d be working with New York’s housing activists. When her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, there were almost 2 million rent-controlled or rent-stabilised apartments in New York City; nowadays, there are fewer than half that number.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is too often blamed for drab high-rise blocks. But regardless of how well his followers across Europe interpreted his ideas, Le Corbusier’s vision for cities was about high quality residential blocks that also contained shops and leisure amenities and were surrounded by parkland – the original mixed use development if you like. His most famous building, Marseille’s Unite d’Habitation, consisted of 337 apartments with views of the mountains and the sea together with shops, a restaurant and a nursery school. The building was originally intended to be public housing, but the French government eventually sold off the flats to recoup costs. Alton West Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield are just some of the examples of Le Corbusier’s influence on the design of post-war council housing here in the UK.

Building homes for a serious business in post-war Britain. Under Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government, 700,000 new council homes were completed. In 1952, the largest architectural practice in the World was at London County Council, with 1,577 staff including 350 professional architects and trainees. These were the days of consensus, and very quickly Tory governments were actually competing with Labour governments about who could built the most council homes.

Some of the council homes built post-war have stood the test of time better than others. But what’s not in doubt is that building council homes on such a scale immeasurably changed the lives of so many families in desperate need of a decent, secure and affordable home. And so many of the post-war modernist high-rise blocks so despised by Jacobs quickly took on the organic self-organising traits that she held in such high regard and have become some of the most enduring and closely-knit communities in London.

Fast forward to 2019 and Right To Buy continues to decimate council housing stock, but perversely home ownership seems more out of reach than ever for so many. An entire generation is being forced to embrace long term private ting in a country that has some weakest protections for private tenants in Europe. Meanwhile, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP – and since then, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than six people.

So what would a comprehensive drive for new council and social housing on the scale of the 1945 government’s efforts look like in 2019?

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. It’s a vision that we’re trying to recreate through our own council home building programme in Islington.

One of the best opportunities for small council home building schemes is to expand upon existing communities. The vast majority of Islington’s new council housing takes the form of infill, construction on existing estates; in unloved spaces, in old garages, and in old undercrofts. These projects often involve landscaping and new amenities to enhance rather than reinvent local communities. We have built community centres and even rebuilt a library as part of council housing schemes. One Tenants’ and Residents’ Association had an idea for a new specialist over 55s block for the older residents of the estate who wanted to stay in their community.

But there’s a place for large-scale place making as well. When the Ministry of Justice closed Holloway Prison and announced that the site would be sold, Islington Council published a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on the site. We had one aim – to send a clear signal to the market that anyone who was looking at buying the site needed to be aware of their planning obligations. Most importantly, any development on the site needed to include at least 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes. The speculation around the site came to an end on 8 March this year when Peabody Housing Association announced that it had bought it. It has committed to going well above and beyond our planning requirements, by making 600 out of a total 1000 homes genuinely affordable homes, including 420 homes for social rent. We need to see more detail on what they are proposing but this is potentially brilliant for the borough. A local grassroots group, Community Plan for Holloway, have been instrumental in ensuring that the community’s voice is heard since the site was sold.

To recreate the scale of the massive post-war council home building programmes would require a Jane Jacobs inspired level of community activism combined with the architectural idealism of Le Corbusier. But it would also need the political will from central government to help local authorities get council housing built. And that, sadly, feels as far away as ever.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.