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Taking England’s Dark Satanic Mills into the Light

by Stephen Miles, Partner, Cushman and Wakefield

William Blake's early 19th century poem first put mills into our national consciousness. Repurposed to offer high quality places to work and live, old textile mills are shedding Blake's "dark, satanic" label. These symbols of our great industrial heritage now represent a significant opportunity for the future - a key element of the Northern Powerhouse agenda for reshaping the North's economy.

Cushman and Wakefield has recently produced a report for Historic England, Engines of Prosperity, to review and develop best practice in the repurposing of textile mills. Whilst the report focuses on West Yorkshire's textile mills, the findings provide replicable solutions for a variety of mill renewal projects which are relevant across the north of England.

Engines of Prosperity: new uses for old mills

Engines of Prosperity: new uses for old mills

Published 30 June 2016

A study to review and develop best practice in the regeneration of West Yorkshire’s textile mills.

So what can historic mill buildings do for the Northern Powerhouse agenda?

Accommodating growth needs

The Northern Powerhouse agenda is all about raising the game in terms of economic and housing growth. Local authorities are struggling to find land to accommodate these needs. They're also grappling with protracted greenbelt release issues in their Local Plan processes. Faced with these issues, vacant mills provide a ready-made solution. In the West Riding of Yorkshire alone, the scale of vacant mill floor space could accommodate approximately 27,000 homes, equivalent to three new towns.

Generating local tax revenues

Bringing a vacant mill back into use can generate new business rate income (since vacant listed buildings do not carry business rates but occupied ones do) or council tax and new homes bonus, both of which are critical elements of devolution which is connected to the Northern Powerhouse.

Brand differentiation

Mills symbolise the North's industrial heritage but equally can help shape the North's future. Repurposed mills offer distinctive and quirky accommodation which appeals to occupiers and investors. As a result, mills can enhance how the 'Powerhouse' is marketed both nationally and internationally to prospective investors.

Exterior of Drummond Mill
The exterior of Grade II listed Drummond Mill, Manningham in Bradford. Drummond Mill is surrounded by residential development, retail and educational uses. Unfortunately a fire in 2016 destroyed some of the mill © Historic England DP071076

And what can the Northern Powerhouse do for textile mill buildings?

The Northern Powerhouse provides a means of creating coordinated, joined-up solutions to common challenges and opportunities across the North, such as heritage renewal.

A key finding of our work was that mill renewal projects are viewed as high risk and do not easily conform to traditional and conventional delivery models. However, through innovative use of public sector resources and powers, together with the willingness of the public sector to take measured risks and work creatively with private sector partners, there are ways of overcoming challenges to realise their potential. This way, the Northern Powerhouse can be a stimulus for public and private sector action to facilitate mill-led regeneration of our cities, towns and villages.

A man and woman walking along a wooden floored passageway in a renovated mill.
Marshall’s Mill, Holbeck in Leeds was refurbished by a previous owner to appear as conventional commercial office space. More recently a developer challenged conventional approaches and stripped back the finish to display original features that appeal to the occupiers © Historic England DP188319

The Engines of Prosperity report was written by Stephen Miles and Stephanie Hiscott in Cushman and Wakefield's Development and Planning Consulting team with support from Jon Phipps at Lathams Architects.

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