If you’re looking for a blindingly obvious metaphor for post-industrial economic decline in northern towns, the decrepit state of their defunct and mouldering ex-textile mills is right up there with the mournful parp of an extinct colliery’s brass band.
Its blinding obviousness doesn’t make it any less fitting, however. Textile mills are northern-ness in bricks and mortar. By 1860 there were 2,650 mills employing 440,000 people in Lancashire alone. But 45 percent of Greater Manchester’s mills have been destroyed just since 1988; there have been more than 100 fires in Bradford’s mills since 2010.
Historic England’s report into the loss of mills in the north-west and Yorkshire, Engines of Prosperity, found that 90 percent of the 1500 mills in the West Riding of Yorkshire are either vacant or underused. There’s more than 2m square feet of unused floor space in mills across Lancashire and Greater Manchester, too. “Such ‘dead landmarks’ can reduce the attractiveness of an area resulting in a lack of inward investment and growth,” the report said.
But it concluded by recommending that recycled mill buildings could act as centres for economic renewal: “Recent experience shows that… integrating historic buildings with regeneration schemes can create popular, vibrant urban quarters which can act as a catalyst for investment.”
In other words, mills are poisonous to the local economy if left to stagnate, but a huge asset if regenerated. So, why are there so many left to lie empty and moulder away? And five months after the report was published, has it made any difference?
Pentridge Mill, Burnley. Image: Dave Bevis/Wikimedia Commons.
There are a lot of snags to overcome when converting an old mill. Firstly, there’s the archaeology of the site: mills might have been built over the top of existing workshops and older mills, and there could be centuries of artefacts down there.
Then developers have to sort out the building’s thermal efficiency, clear out flammable dust and work out how to add fire escapes and other services without undermining its historic fabric. “When you’ve got a listed structure, any intervention is potentially problematic,” says Jon Phipps of architect firm Cushman & Wakefield, who consulted on the report. “How do you get services through the building without destroying the building?”
Once a big, open mill shop floor has been sliced up into flats or offices there’s also the issue of getting light into rooms in the middle, and of noise bleeding between rooms via beams and pillars running through them, too.
On top of that, the fact that mills were built by different developers in different places at different times and with different materials means there’s no solution to any of those problems which will work for all the others; every project has to be bespoke. “Whatever is the scenario in Bradford is unlikely to be repeated on the edge of Sowerby Bridge,” Phipps says.
A renovated mill does make a chic HQ for content marketing company – If you can get past the fact loads of people were very probably horribly maimed or that mule spinners who leaned against oiled bits of machinery developed cancer of the groin in that building. Clearly, though, it doesn’t always work like that.
“One of the most important factors is where they are,” says Phipps. “So if you have a mill in central Manchester, clearly that’s going to be a lot easier to convert because the market can tackle it.”
It’s a lot harder to trust the market “if you’ve got a mill in a location where there’s market failure,” Phipps says – thatat is, in northern towns and cities with smaller or more depressed economies than Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool.
In these “traditionally weak market locations,” the Historic England report says, “it is easy to see why such properties can be viewed as more of a liability, rather than an asset.”
“You can make things stack up commercially in areas where there’s demand,” says Phipps. Elsewhere, buildings are left to moulder and become dangerous.
Moreover, these mills aren’t just spaces which could be offices, homes or shops – they’re monuments which remind locals that northern mill towns weren’t always on the fringes of the economy, and that their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents put their towns at its centre.
The report has spurred local councils to action, though. “These buildings are a huge part of our heritage and we’ve had some great success stories over the years. But there’s a lot more that can be done,” says Alex Ross Shaw, Bradford Council's executive member for regeneration, planning & transport. “That’s what we’re working with Historic England on to achieve.”
There is one more problem, however. Historic England estimated the UK received at least £450m in EU funding for heritage projects between 2007 and 2016. Without that – and without bold developers – the mills will continue to lie unused, and become more perilous every day.