Wakefield - a city on the rise
PUBLISHED: 00:00 16 September 2016
Ambitious plans are helping an historic city change its whole outlook, reports Martin Pilkington
Those outside Wakefield may not be aware that it’s a city. But plenty within are keen to show it’s a city on the rise, with major regeneration projects already completed and many more in the pipeline, its famous rugby league team resurgent and even the celebrated cathedral having recently undergone significant restoration work. The views of three leading figures central to this drive demonstrate that it’s not just about patching up the legacies of Wakefield’s past, but making a huge difference to its life now, and for the future. They are the councillor – Denise Jeffery, cabinet member for economic growth and skills; the cleric – Tony Robinson, Bishop of Wakefield; and the sports mentor - Michael Carter, chairman of its famous rugby league club.
‘We have massive ambitions for the city centre, with lots of investment coming our way,’ says Councillor Jeffery. ‘We couldn’t sit back and wait. What we’ve done in Wakefield is get plans ready in spite of the recession when little money was around, so when the West Yorkshire Combined Authority got funding we had plans on the shelf, shovel ready, before others had.’
Added to that is significant money from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the bonus paid by central government when Wakefield exceeded its new house building quota. There’s no shortage of work on which to spend the cash. The city’s infrastructure is being improved with projects like the £33m road scheme that will ease flow to the centre while routing other traffic away from it and a £6m scheme, starting this year, to remove old subways and improve links between the city centre, the already revamped Kirkgate station and the Waterfront area.
More dramatic and visible is the work being done in that Waterfront area. ‘We are opening the new West Yorkshire History Centre building shortly, a fabulous landmark structure that complements the very successful Hepworth Gallery,’ says Coun Jeffery. ‘And it’s very exciting too that the redevelopment of Rutland Mills, old buildings that had pretty much gone to ruin, has now come forward, which will bring more cultural and creative elements to the Waterfront. We see creative industries as vital for Wakefield; this can be a cultural hub with The Hepworth, the National Mining Museum and the Sculpture Park as parts of an overall offer bringing people here.’
It takes energy and vision to push through major changes like these, and Michael Carter at Wakefield Trinity Rugby League Club is not lacking in either quality. Since he took over the club in August 2013 its fortunes have turned around. ‘Off the field the club’s finances are now in a better place than they’ve been for the last 20 years,’ he says. ‘We had to make some hard decisions to get to that point. And on the field things have improved radically under the guidance of Chris Chester. We’ve secured a top eight place and reached the semi-final of the Challenge Cup, so things are moving in the right direction.’
Michael wants to redevelop the club’s Belle Vue ground, which he says is not suitable to host Super League games, with ground sharing with Dewsbury a possible interim measure while discussions continue about the redevelopment; another step towards regaining the status the club once enjoyed.
‘Wakefield Trinity in the 1960s was the biggest rugby league club in the world. For me it has always been Wakefield Trinity, not Wildcats, I love the tradition of that, and the vast majority of our fans feel the same, so we’re reverting to Wakefield Trinity. Next year it’s new kit, new name, and working to go from strength to strength. We have a proud heritage, and city and club are pretty much synonymous,’ he says. ‘I’d like the club to be at the forefront of all the good things happening in Wakefield, to spread the word that Wakefield is a thriving place and the rugby league club is central to that.’
With all of the development and change underway in the city, it’s good to have at its centre a point of calm, which is surely one of the roles of the Cathedral Church of All Saints. ‘The cathedral is right at the heart of the city and has a very significant role here,’ says the Right Rev Bishop of Wakefield Tony Robinson. ‘It’s the familiar landmark that you can see from all around, with the tallest spire in Yorkshire; a place where the community can come together for events in national life, like Remembrance and most recently the Queen’s 90th birthday, and for local events such as graduation ceremonies and services which celebrate the lives of those who have died, like the Light Up a Life Hospice Services at Christmas, as well as the daily round of prayer and worship.’
But even the cathedral, whose roots go way back to Anglo-Saxon times, is not immune to improvement work. ‘Over the past few years the cathedral has undergone urgent and extensive restoration work and modernisation,’ he adds. It took several years of fundraising, but the building now enjoys relaid floors, plus better heating, lighting and sound systems; that last element encapsulating how Wakefield is making the most of its heritage as part of its present and future. ‘The cathedral is proud of its amazing musical tradition with its choir and musicians.’
When asked which part of the city is his favourite, his choice again reflects how old and new are working together. He selects the ancient Chantry Chapel that sits on the medieval bridge over the Calder, for what it says about the history of the place and opposite it The Hepworth, whose doors only opened in 2011.