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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What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.


Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.