Hunslet Turned Upside Down

August 20, 2014


The city of Leeds was once a Victorian powerhouse of capital accumulation, high employment, rich industrialists and grand civic architecture. Today the city centre markets itself as a haven for financial services, high-end shopping, and innovative PFI schemes. The financial crisis of 2008 has caused this story to stutter, but will this allow other visions to raise their heads? Leeds Plan C explore how this might play out in the Hunslet area of Leeds.

Leeds is haunted by the ghosts of developments past; both the buildings that didn’t come to pass and the futures those failed projects promised. Of these it’s Leeds’ ghost towers that are most visible, although of course only through their absence. There are gaps in the skyline, holes in the ground. The failure of the council’s ‘Tall Buildings’ policy may be hidden behind hoardings, but no one is fooled. And as the plan to develop Leeds upwards has faltered we move to the default, development outwards.

Just a mile south-east of the city centre, Hunslet was once home to Leeds’ manufacturing and heavy engineering industries. A rump of those industries remains but the working class which laboured in them was broken up and relocated by the redevelopment of the late 1960s. Fifty years later, Hunslet and South East Leeds stand on the verge of another episode of ‘regeneration’. With plentiful brown field sites and cheap corrugated buildings, it’s the prime target for the outwards spread of the city centre. Yet as we researched the often obscured development plans, as we walked the area and pieced the different schemes together, it soon became clear that they didn’t add up. So, on a sunny day in early May, we led a guided walk around the area to discuss the various ways this could all play out.

We began the walk in the Tetley building, now an arts centre, which only a few years ago served as the centre of Tetley’s brewery complex. The smell of hops that once floated across the city centre is gone for good and so too are the jobs the brewery provided – up to a thousand in its heyday. The Tetley building now sits isolated in the middle of a large car park – a familiar sight in a city choked by cars and lacking effective or affordable public transport. Yet the creative industries, for which the Tetley is an outlier, are central to the story being told about Hunslet. They are meant to provide not just ‘destination’ attractions to drag consumers across the river Aire, but also to provide employment. And it’s here that the development story starts to break down.

The creative industries are an elastic category. In Hunslet they include not just the cultural sector but also the world of digital start-ups. There has been wild talk of South Leeds becoming the new ‘silicon roundabout’, ignoring the fact of the original in Shoreditch. The dissipation of the latter in the face of rising real estate prices shows the real source of ‘growth’ in the UK. In Hunslet, an ex-casino is to be re-developed into a ‘super building’ called the Engine. It will contain  ‘flexible workspace’ allowing entrepreneurs and ‘creatives’ to rent table space by the hour and create synergy in the coffee shops. This may seem familiar as the same story is trotted out up and down the country. Embarrassingly, the same spiel was told about Leeds’ previous development target, the adjoining area of Holbeck, which just four or five years ago was crowned Leeds’ creative quarter. If it didn’t work there then why should it work two miles to the East?

The problem is not geographic, it is inherent to the digital and creative industries. Even when they succeed they just don’t employ many people. When Instagram, a popular photo-sharing site, was sold to Facebook for $1 billion in 2012, it had 30 million users, yet it only employed 13 people. In comparison Kodak, which filed for bankruptcy a few months earlier, employed 145,000 people at its height. The production of phone apps is never going to provide the kind of mass employment that Holbeck’s industry once did.

The other new jobs in the area will be in the public sector, more specifically in education. There are plans to open a new school in Hunslet in 2016. Several further education colleges are also being built. But where will the students come from? No doubt they’ll end up being bussed in but officially the school is meant to promote inner-city family living. There is talk of 8,000 new housing units in the area, many of these family homes. Those young professionals now living in a cramped city centre flat, so the story goes, will no longer need to move to the suburbs to raise a family. They will just cross the river into a vibrant but family-friendly community. Yet a quick walk around the neighbourhood raises some serious doubts – it is dominated by traffic. When Leeds became the ‘motorway city of the 70s’ and the M1 was brought to the city centre, Hunslet was cut in half. This played a big role in the area’s depopulation. Today it’s still a traffic hub, a noisy and polluted place which people and things pass through on the way to somewhere else. Not the kind of location where many people would choose to raise children.

So what do we do with this story that won’t make sense? We could look for corruption and ask who owns the crumbling buildings that litter the site. Developers, after all, don’t need their plans to work out in the long term as long as a buzz is generated and real estate prices rise in the short term. But is such research enough? Won’t its revelation just reinforce the prevailing mood of public cynicism? Is this politically effective? Perhaps we need to move beyond critique and propose different ideas of the future.

Hunslet is a peculiar case of drawn out gentrification. Its depopulation in the 60s and 70s makes the usual campaigning approach unfeasible. We can’t defend the rights of existing residents if none are being displaced. This gives us a chance to ask a different question: if current plans don’t make sense then what would be needed to make them work? Let’s put it another way. The story of creative jobs in a green and vibrant family environment is attractive. The desires for this sort of life are currently being mobilised towards a real estate scam. But can they be mobilised in a different direction? Can they trigger the kinds of political struggle and campaigns that might actually bring their alternatives? And along the way can we make these desires more equitable and sustainable?

The first change we need is in transport. The private monopoly of public transport has been a disaster. Prices have risen so fast that families consider taxis the cheaper option.  If cars are to stop clogging the roads and polluting the air then fares need to come down and free public transport must be the horizon. Such campaigns may not sound glamorous but they can have far-reaching effects. The Brazilian Summer/Autumn of mass protests in 2013 was sparked by a small group acting on precisely this demand.

The other side to the reduction of prices is the raising of incomes – but how can this be achieved when well-paying jobs are ever scarcer? One idea that makes sense in this context is the Universal Basic Income, which guarantees basic needs regardless of employment. Not only would this strengthen the hand of labour when demanding higher wages but it might also allow the spread of creative jobs for all who want them. The dictatorship of the unpaid intern would finally come to an end. It could also lead to the enlargement of the collaborative commons, which have been revealed by digital technology but whose potential goes much further. If we followed such a path, more and more of our lives could be extracted from the dictates of the market. Of course this would not be easy to bring about, but its logic follows from the myth of the ‘good life’ currently on offer.

Chief amongst the obstacles in our way is the current distribution of power. Economic inequalities in Leeds are sky high, with large parts written off as surplus populations. Surplus to requirements and so simply a public order issue. We desperately need affordable housing and the end of subsidies for landlords. What we don’t need is more luxury accommodation. Yet the council’s policy of ‘developer-led development’ locks in the super-rich’s monopoly over visions for the city. So ultimately we need to re-democratise, to shift the balance of power. Any development that doesn’t address existing inequalities will only reinforce them.

By Leeds Plan C | @leedsplanc


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