What should the north of England do with its disused textile mills?

Murray's Mill, McConnel &Kennedy's Mill on the Rochdale Canal in Ancoats Redhill Street. Image: Clem Rutter/Wikimedia Commons.

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.

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Wild boar are moving back to Genoa, and not everyone is pleased

A wild boar, c1933. Image: Getty.

Crossing the Ponte Gerolamo Serra in the Italian city of Genoa, I spotted a small crowd clustered by the river wall. I approached, intrigued, and peered over the wall to discover the subject of their delight: a sounder of eight wild boars – the adults sheltering from the heat in the undergrowth, while the juveniles foraged among the foliage that grows in the river bed during the dry summer months.

In any other city, such a sight might have been surprising. But in Italy, and particularly in the region of Liguria, where Genoa is located, the population of wild boars has been increasing at such a rapid rate that these incidents are now common. Across the country, it’s estimated that the population has risen from 600,000 to 1m over the past decade.

But while wild boars may look comically out of place trotting about the city, it’s actually a natural result of the way people have migrated – and the wars they have fought – over the course of recent history.

Making a comeback

A species native to Europe, the wild boar (or “cinghiale”, in Italian) largely disappeared from its historical territories during the 18th and 19th centuries. Their decline was widely attributed to the combined effects of habitat change, competition for space and resources and, of course, hunting.

Wild boars were a prized quarry, revered for their ferocity – and the danger involved in pursuing them. According to local folklore from the region of Liguria, the last truly wild boar was hunted and killed in 1814, in the province of Savona.

After an absence of more than a century, wild boar began to return to Liguria, and to the neighbouring region of Piedmont. A further influx occurred during World War I, when it’s believed that military activities in the south-east of France forced parts of the population back into Italy over the Alps.

Although hunting fraternities were quick to augment this fledgling population with wild boars transported from elsewhere, the return of the species was primarily due to natural causes. From the 1950s onwards, traditional agricultural practices were abandoned as more and more people moved from rural towns into the cities. This meant that large areas of formerly cultivated terraces and pastures were rapidly overgrown, fast becoming dense secondary woodlands.

A city gone wild

This spontaneous “rewilding” has become a controversial issue in the region. Many conservationists and environmental organisations consider the region’s return to a “wild state” a success. But others believe that the encroaching wilderness signals a loss of traditional woodland knowledge and a reduction of biodiversity, associated with the pastures and meadows.


The province of Genoa is among the areas most densely populated by wild boar in Italy, with an estimated 25 boar per 10km². Rewilding processes have brought woodlands to the city limits, blurring the boundary between rural and urban areas. The species has expanded beyond the hinterlands, colonising highly urbanised, densely populated city spaces in Genoa, drawn by the abundance of food waste created by humans.

In 2009, the infamous boar Pierino made his home at Righi, on the outskirts of Genoa, where he was routinely fed with focaccia by enthusiasts. Today, a family of wild boar call the Albergo dei Poveri – a historical hostel for the Genoese poor in the city centre – their home.

But while their antics are often recorded and shared with glee on social media, the threats posed by the presence of wild animals has become a preoccupation for the city’s municipal administration.

Boorish behaviour

Wild boar have been involved in a number of traffic accidents, and have proven to be particularly dangerous when with their young, attacking dogs and even people. The city council in Genoa has put forward many proposals to reduce the number of animals in the city, ranging from forced removals, to sterilisation, increased attention to waste disposal and approved hunts. About 90 wild boar were reportedly culled in 2018.

Needless to say, each of these measures has been hotly debated. Animal advocacy groups staunchly oppose the proposals, and sometimes obstruct the authorities’ attempts to take action, often sending patrols to care for the animals, and even give them names. But other residents are displeased with the animals’ presence in the city, and have consulted with the council on how to address the problems that they cause.

And so Genoa continues to grapple with thorny issues surrounding the presence of wild boar in the city, with the city authorities seeking to resolve a polemical issue that embroils the lives of animals and humans alike. So far, a collective, coherent and communally agreeable strategy has proven evasive; one that considers the need for public safety, hygiene and health with the ethical responsibilities towards to wild boar themselves.

Meanwhile, the animals themselves continue to lounge and forage beneath the Ponte Gerolamo Serra and elsewhere, bringing a little of the wilderness into the city.

The Conversation

Robert Hearn, Assistant Professor in Human Geography, University of Nottingham.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.