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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There isn’t a war on the motorist. We should start one

These bloody people. Image: Getty.

When should you use the horn on a car? It’s not, and anyone who has been on a road in the UK in living memory will be surprised to hear this, when you are inconvenienced by traffic flow. Nor is it when you are annoyed that you have been very slightly inconvenienced by another driver refusing to break the law in a manner that is objectively dangerous, but which you perceive to be to your advantage.

According to the Highway Code:

“A horn should only be used when warning someone of any danger due to another vehicle or any other kind of danger.”

Let’s be frank: neither you nor I nor anyone we have ever met has ever heard a horn used in such a manner. Even those of us who live in or near places where horns perpetually ring out due to the entitled sociopathy of most drivers. Especially those of us who live in or near such places.

Several roads I frequently find myself pushing a pram up and down in north London are two way traffic, but allow parking on both sides. This being London that means that, in practice, they’re single track road which cars can enter from both ends.

And this being London that means, in practice, that on multiple occasions every day, men – it is literally always men – glower at each other from behind the steering wheels of needlessly big cars, banging their horns in fury that circumstances have, usually through the fault of neither of them, meant they are facing each other on a de facto single track road and now one of them is going to have to reverse for a metre or so.

This, of course, is an unacceptable surrender as far as the drivers’ ego is concerned, and a stalemate seemingly as protracted as the cold war and certainly nosier usually emerges. Occasionally someone will climb out of their beloved vehicle and shout and their opponent in person, which at least has the advantages of being quieter.

I mentioned all this to a friend recently, who suggested that maybe use of car horns should be formally restricted in certain circumstances.

Ha ha ha. Hah.

The Highway Code goes on to say -

“It is illegal to use a horn on a moving vehicle on a restricted road, a road that has street lights and a 30 mph limit, between the times of 11:30 p.m. and 07:00 a.m.”

Is there any UK legal provision more absolutely and comprehensively ignored by those to whom it applies? It might as well not be there. And you can bet that every single person who flouts it considers themselves law abiding. Rather than the perpetual criminal that they in point of fact are.


In the 25 years since I learned to drive I have used a car horn exactly no times, despite having lived in London for more than 20 of them. This is because I have never had occasion to use it appropriately. Neither has anyone else, of course, they’ve just used it inappropriately. Repeatedly.

So here’s my proposal for massively improving all UK  suburban and urban environments at a stroke: ban horns in all new cars and introduce massive, punitive, crippling, life-destroying fines for people caught using them on their old one.

There has never been a war on motorists, despite the persecution fantasies of the kind of middle aged man who thinks owning a book by Jeremy Clarkson is a substitute for a personality. There should be. Let’s start one. Now.

Phase 2 will be mandatory life sentences for people who don’t understand that a green traffic light doesn’t automatically mean you have right of way just because you’re in a car.

Do write in with your suggestions for Phase 3.