Wakefield is thriving after multi-million investment
PUBLISHED: 00:00 09 July 2015 | UPDATED: 14:53 08 September 2017
A struggling West Yorkshire city which refused to give up begins to enjoy an economic boom. Terry Fletcher reports
Some urban planners will tell you that when cities develop side by side it is as immutable as the Law of Gravity that as one thrives, the other will flounder and that over time it will get worse. The winner will suck in investment and jobs while the loser slips ever deeper into its shadow. But if that’s true, nobody told Wakefield. With the financial, commercial and retail powerhouse of Leeds just a few minutes up the motorway and its own once-staple coal industry disappeared almost overnight, Wakefield should be struggling. Yet the ‘Merrie Citie’ is enjoying its own economic boom with hundreds of millions of pounds-worth of investment pouring in.
In the space of a few short years the city centre has been transformed. The £200m Trinity Walk shopping centre with flagship national stores opened in 2011 and is now due to be joined by an adjoining cinema complex, which is expected to attract some 400,000 customers a year, half of them newcomers to the city. Nearby the main Westgate station has been completely replaced and the second station at Kirkgate is getting a revamp.
The city was put firmly on the national cultural map in 2011 with the opening of the £35m internationally-recognised Hepworth Gallery showcasing the work of locally-born sculptor Dame Barbara Hepworth. It forms just part of an on-going revival of the waterfront of the River Calder and its canals.
The Civic Quarter, centred on Wood Street with the impressive town hall and county hall – a remnant of the days when Wakefield was the capital of the West Riding – have been given a facelift. The former crown court with its imposing columned front, which stood empty and decaying, is now swathed in builders’ scaffolding while a gleaming new library, museum and council offices complex have been built just behind.
To anyone who knew the city in the dismal days of decline it is a revelation but not one that happened by accident. Faced with the collapse of coal on top of the earlier woes of its textile sector the council set out to reinvent the area. Its leader, Peter Box says that while the first priority was always what he calls ‘the day job’ – providing basic services from schools to refuse collection – there was also an active effort to woo business and bring in investors.
He says: ‘After the collapse of the mining industry we did not fall into the trap of feeling sorry for ourselves. We realised things had to change and we did change.’ One of the key elements has been culture, capitalising on the fact that the two greatest British sculptors of the 20th century, Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore were both born in the area. Newcastle’s Sage and Salford’s Lowry have both shown how the arts can reinvigorate run down areas but Coun Box believes the effect in Wakefield is even more marked than in bigger cities. ‘Because we’re not huge the impact of something like the Hepworth is even more significant here.’ It has also helped having the already well-established Yorkshire Sculpture Park, which shows many of Moore’s huge works outdoors in a landscape setting on the edge of the city. Together with the Henry Moore Gallery in Leeds they form a triumvirate of galleries that together attract international visitors.
Not that everything has always gone smoothly. A new market hall is to be demolished just six years after it was built. Shoppers never warmed to it and it is now due to give way to the cinema. Even more potentially catastrophically at the depth of the financial crisis in 2009 the whole Trinity Walk project teetered after receivers were called in.
‘That could have been a disaster and could have left us with a huge hole in the middle of the city. But we refused to let it happen. The bank wanted to pull out but we managed to get financial guarantees in place to make sure the building went ahead. We knew it was a crucial link in the regeneration.’
Wakefield Council leader Peter Box
Peter Box talks to Jacqueline Dobson and Elizabeth Bailey who love shopping in Wakefield
Laura Penman and Matt Tate go shopping
Friends enjoy shopping in the city centre
Kieran has fun playing in the fountains in Wakefield city centre
Kelly Law and her son Harry take a break
Even now, however, much remains to be done. The Kirkgate area, for long a poor relation at the foot of the city centre, still needs to be tackled to create a link with the waterfront. ‘It’s a long process and we have already come a long way but there’s still a lot to do and we must not forget the rest of the district (it also includes Castleford, Pontefract and the Five Towns). There is no magic wand but there are things I would like to see, including a university here,’ says Coun Box.
There is also the lure of Chancellor George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse, harnessing the economies of cities along the M62 corridor. Wakefield at the crossroads of the M1 and M62 seems ideally placed to profit from it. ‘At the moment the Northern Powerhouse is rhetoric but we’ll be very interested to hear what is on offer. The rules have changed now. Authorities can’t just sit back and deliver services any more. We are now key players in bringing people together and we have to invest in the future and create something,’ he says.