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Piece Hall, Halifax

Volume 474: debated on Tuesday 22 April 2008

I am delighted to have secured this debate on such an important building and such an important aspect of my Halifax constituency.

The historic Piece Hall market and building has been at the heart of Halifax town centre for decades. This architectural jewel in the Halifax crown is a testament to the commercial success of the woollen industry of west Yorkshire and Lancashire. This grade 1 Georgian building is the only remaining intact cloth hall in west Yorkshire, and it is a rare complete survival of this type of building in Europe. I do not exaggerate when I say that if this building were in Venice or Vienna, Rome or Rhodes, tourists would flock to visit it. Alas, it is not, but I am glad about that, because we are proud to have the building in Halifax, with the economic, social and industrial benefits that it has brought to the town in the past 100 years and beyond.

Time does not stand still. Since the war, as the years have gone by, the role of the Piece hall has become less clear. Everyone recognises the building’s importance: they know that, with a bit of initiative and industry, the building could come alive once again and be at the heart of regeneration proposals for Halifax town centre. However, that will not happen overnight. I have pushed for this debate to get on the record the building’s importance to the town centre. I urge the Minister to visit it and see for himself the splendour of the surroundings. I urge the Government to contribute to the investment in this building, not only to ensure its survival as a reminder of our great industrial past, but to help us look to the future with pride as a new use is found for it in the 21st century.

We are at a crossroads. A few years ago, the council commissioned a building condition survey for the Piece hall, and its report identified the fact that investment in excess of £1 million was needed. More than £400,000 of council funding has been invested in the infrastructure, but much more needs to be done. Halifax people do not just want improvements to the building; they want change, character and charisma added to it. I hope that the Minister will acknowledge and comment on the council's ideas for the Piece hall, which I will set out in a minute. I hope that he will outline whether those ideas could go further, and will explain how similar buildings around the country have survived and flourished after renewal took place.

In addition to the investment that I have mentioned, there has also been some partnership work with Yorkshire Forward, whose recent report highlighted the fact that the Piece hall was the focus of economic and cultural regeneration in the town, and came up with a number of ideas and investment initiatives that could be tied together as an overall regeneration package. Cinemas, bowling alleys, hotels and other leisure and commercial facilities have all been identified as parts of that package. However, all too often, grand plans and big visions fail to be realised. One of the key schemes in Halifax—Broad street—has fallen through time and again over the past 10 years. Perhaps the Minister will offer the council some advice so that it can ensure that artists’ impressions are followed through and goals are achieved. The council’s proposal for an overall regeneration focus is sound enough, but a recognised use for the Piece hall is still missing from the jigsaw puzzle. Does the Minister believe that such old buildings have a future within regeneration initiatives?

As important as economic considerations is the cultural importance of the Piece hall building and the pre-industrial society and social history that it represents. For example, the Piece Hall yard is the largest public space in Halifax town centre, and has been used for more than a century for civic functions and public events. There is no doubt that local people, visitors and tourists cherish this wonderful building, but do they cherish what it offers apart from its being a superb memento of Halifax’s past? I want the building to be visited by people because of what it is now, and not only because of what it once was. There are too many ideas at the moment, but not enough action. It seems that the Piece hall is part of the wider regeneration plans of Halifax, but not the focus of those plans, and I want to change that.

What can be done, and what should be done? That is a broad question. The Government’s commitment to the cultural heritage of our times means that they should have a keen interest in what is going on for the future. Perhaps the Minister will outline in his reply what plans and ideas the Government have for historic buildings such as the Piece hall.

May I tell my hon. Friends the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Riordan) and the Minister that in west Yorkshire we have lots of interesting places that people can visit, in both the natural and the built environment? Unfortunately, however, not many people visit them, because the cruise liners and tourist boards concentrate on areas such as York to the detriment of other towns. I often feel that York is strangled by a surfeit of visitors. Why not spread those visitors into areas such as Halifax, with Piece Hall yard, and Keighley, with Keighley and Worth Valley railway, the Brontë Parsonage museum and the wonderful East Riddlesden hall, which is owned by the National Trust. The natural environment in this area, especially spreading over to the Calder valley—the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Chris McCafferty)—and Hebden Bridge, is wonderful. I wish that the cruise liners and tourist boards would be a bit more imaginative and start taking people to, and encouraging them to go to, to areas like ours.

My hon. Friend is right. We have a wealth of listed buildings in Halifax, Calderdale and in west Yorkshire generally that are not recognised often enough and we do not get the tourist numbers that we need to achieve. That is why I want to highlight these issues today.

I should like the Piece hall to become the heart of everything that is culturally vibrant in Halifax. The shop units could become continental cafés, different styles of restaurant could open at night, and top bands could perform in the beautiful surroundings. Annual arts festivals could be held. Our local man, Barry Rutter, could perform Shakespeare with a Yorkshire accent in the Piece hall. Such ideas have been thought about locally for many years, but too often they are left gathering dust in town hall cupboards or do not get past the artist’s impression stage. Only last week, a council meeting was held, and, once again, any ideas for the Piece hall were delayed till later this year and perhaps even until next year. It is just not good enough.

Last autumn, the council again announced a number of grand ideas based in and around the Piece hall. It seems as though it is a location around which to build a vision. That is a start, but it is another false dawn? I want that vision for a regenerated Halifax beginning in the Piece hall and moving outwards from there. The council seems to be moving in the right direction, yet at a recent town hall meeting councillors were still being asked what their ideas were for the future use of the Piece hall. Things should long since have moved on from that stage. Sometimes it seems that no one can make the final decision.

I have a newspaper cutting from the Halifax Evening Courier from 2003, explaining that plans were in place to transform the Piece hall into a major international centre, with a university faculty and apartments for town centre living, taking Halifax into the 21st century, but nothing has happened. Lack of funding, both locally and nationally, has often been a problem, as has the failure to chase available funding. Lack of marketing of the Piece hall is also an issue, although many dedicated people have tried hard to market it. I would not be surprised to hear that a Minister from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport had never visited the Piece hall, and it is time to put that right in the coming weeks and months. One Halifax Evening Courier reader said five years ago:

“To me this is a totally wasted building. There is so much you could do with the Piece Hall. If this was a place like York or Stratford-on-Avon there would be events on at the Piece Hall 52 weeks of the year. It’s a lovely building and a disgrace that we don’t use it enough at the moment.”

A threefold approach is needed. The council should identify the future use of the Piece hall, and propose how it could be developed as a jewel in Halifax town centre’s crown through the century. At the moment, too many ideas and plans are like sandcastles facing the incoming tide. There have been enough false dawns, and it is time to stop consulting and drawing up plans. We must find a vision, stick to it and deliver. To help to make that happen, the Government must be aware of the hall’s importance as a cultural entity. Are Government funds available to tap into? What similar buildings around the country have been successfully redeveloped and a new use found for them with a new vision, while recognising the historic value of the building? The scheme must fit into overall regeneration of Halifax town centre. Too many plans do not tie together. Will the Minister urge the council to move its regeneration plans for the Piece hall to the forefront? The jewel in Halifax’s crown is one of the finest buildings in the north of England. I have been delighted this afternoon to place on record the Piece hall’s importance to Halifax town centre. If that helps to kick-start a new dawn for the hall, I shall be delighted. It is time to stop talking, and to start doing.

I am genuinely pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Riordan) has secured this debate. I am a lover of history and architecture, so responding to such a debate thrills me. I am so pleased that she was able to secure it.

One of the jewels, if not the central jewel, in Halifax’s crown is the Piece hall. The building is impressive in its own right, as is the key role that it should and does play in the economic life and heart of the town. My hon. Friend mentioned its history, and I have looked into that as a lover of history. It was opened in 1779 as a place where handloom weavers could sell their cloth. As we all know, tragically, that trade has declined over the centuries and there has been a change in the textile industry. However, it remains a place for trading, with changes to utilise the space for retail outlets, and the external space being used for markets.

Our predecessors had the foresight to recognise the Piece hall as an ancient monument way back in 1928, although it was more than 40 years before work was started to restore the building. I share my hon. Friend’s concern about the pace of regeneration work. I understand that there was some success with major refurbishment of the hall in the 1970s and the development of the adjoining industrial museum, which gave the building a new lease of life. However, as we all know, in our part of the world in the 1970s and 1980s there were challenging economic conditions, and the creation of new retail developments had a negative impact on the building’s role.

It is encouraging that the building’s importance has not been forgotten. Since 2004, the council has committed to further investment in the building. I understand that it is proposed to allocate specifically to the Piece hall £600,000 of the original Heritage Lottery Fund townscape heritage initiative award of £1.4 million for the redevelopment of the Piece hall and the King Cross street areas. However and as my hon. Friend alluded to, the timescale for that development has been revised as part of that wider scheme, and we must refocus. I appreciate her role in bringing the matter to my attention. As a result of the development lagging behind, the Piece hall works could not be completed with the original townscape heritage initiative scheme, and the award has been reduced to £100,000 for emergency works only. We must redress that.

The Piece hall is playing a role as a key driver for other regeneration projects in the area. There is a wide and varied range of regeneration projects in the town centre, which is using the Piece hall as a focal point. I mentioned the council’s commitment in 2004. In partnership with the regional development agency, Yorkshire Forward, it commissioned a strategic development framework for Halifax. The report highlighted the Piece hall and the wider architectural legacy of the townscape as a key priority for the economic and cultural regeneration of the town. Ideas from that strategic development framework for regeneration of the Piece hall have progressed, and the main conclusion is that the solution should be based not only on the Piece hall, important though that is, but on its relationship and interaction with the surrounding land and property, and its wider relationship with the urban fabric and infrastructure of Halifax. That is eminently sensible.

We are not starting from a completely flat base. Halifax benefited from a £7.8 million award under the EU urban II initiative back in December 2001. That has been used to lever additional funds into the town with a total funding package of £25 million. Some of that funding has supported new businesses setting up in the Piece hall, and £350,000 from the single regeneration budget capital has been put toward the upgrade and repair of the town hall.

More generally, the funding has been used to develop a team of town centre ambassadors to establish a business crime reduction partnership. Both initiatives are helping to enhance and regenerate the area. New businesses have also benefited, with improvements to business premises being funded and grants given to business start-ups from the council and Yorkshire Forward. However, I take on board fully the point about the importance of the Piece hall. It is incredibly important.

My hon. Friend asked me about other areas throughout the country that have used a key architectural focal point as a means of facilitating economic regeneration. I can think of a number in my own patch and elsewhere. The NewcastleGateshead initiative has been tremendously successful in bringing former industrial buildings back into use, and the Baltic mill has been turned into a fantastic arts centre. It has been a major driver of regeneration in Newcastle and Gateshead.

My wife went to university in Leeds, so I know the Corn Exchange incredibly well. It has been redeveloped from a former industrial marketplace and now has a 21st-century use. Popping over the Pennines, Elevate is the pathfinder for the east Lancashire area. I visited Elevate at the back end of last year. It is housed in a former textile mill that used to employ 29,000 people in its heyday. Sadly, it no longer employs 29,000, but it has been regenerated and provides high-spec business space for organisations such as Elevate, which has also brought forward development in respect of retail, culture and fabrics. I like the idea that in the 18th and 19th centuries, the building was used to produce cotton that was exported all over the world, and that it is now involved in using culture and fashion to export high-value-added goods. There is a real 21st-century purpose to that building. Given the central focus of the Piece hall and the adjoining public realm area, I suspect that something similarly ambitious and vital could be done there.

I do not live quite in Keighley, but in Shipley and it has just occurred to me—I should have thought of it before—that it is adjacent to Saltaire, which is a world heritage site. It is presumably deemed to be so by UNESCO and I am wondering whether Piece hall yard, which is so similar to St. Mark’s square in Venice, could be classed as a world heritage site, for example, to elevate its position. Presumably that would also bring in money. I am not sure whether that could be done; perhaps my hon. Friend can enlighten us.

I am not familiar with the criteria that UNESCO uses to designate world heritage sites, but I understand that the Piece hall is a grade I listed building. From the images that I have seen it has a wow factor, and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax said at the start of her remarks, if it was in Rome or Florence, it would be in every tourist book. We need to push such sites because we have some real gems in the north of England that are a legacy of our industrial past and a sign of the industrial wealth that we used to create. We need to bring such sites back into use, so that we can have exciting, innovative and prosperous use from them in the 21st century. The Piece hall already has quality design, and it could help to provide the anchor for further regeneration of Halifax and the wider area.

I am keen to be involved with the Piece hall and would love to visit Halifax. I am already committed to visiting my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) and the wider Bradford area, so I could combine the two in one day. I would love to have a look around and to talk to local authority and other partner agencies such as Yorkshire Forward, in order to establish what can be done for such a fantastic building, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax rightly said, is so attractive and central to Halifax. We need to ensure that it is brought back into use faster to help promote economic development and prosperity further.

Regeneration is not merely confined to the town centre, although that is important. The council has recently granted planning permission for Broad street, which is a major mixed-use development on the periphery of the town centre. From my hon. Friend’s contribution, I understand her frustration with the development of Broad street and I sympathise with the strong message that she is advancing. I understand that the scheme includes a cinema for the town and associated leisure and commercial uses, including a new hotel. Halifax train station, through which I have passed, will also benefit. I take on board the point about ensuring that when people arrive in Halifax, they are provided with an attractive environment—that is very important.

I am pleased that my hon. Friend has referred to Halifax railway station. As he mentioned, we find that people often pass through Halifax because we do not promote it enough. Much work needs to be done to the railway station. For a town of the size and stature of Halifax, the railway station is simply not good enough. I am glad that he has put on the record that people pass Halifax by. We need people to stop there, and doing something with the Piece hall would help with that.

I am pleased to say that work is ongoing. It is important to have a sense of arrival and people are attracted to visiting York, Leeds and other places because of the idea of arriving at a well-maintained, ambitious building. I am pleased that major refurbishment and regeneration works are taking place at Halifax train station. I understand that from March 2009, the historic station canopy will be strengthened, which is important, and the footbridge will be refurbished. There will also be redecoration works. Further improvements to the station are being proposed by the Halifax train station stakeholder group, which will take advantage of the national station improvement programme to lever in further funds for the regeneration of the station as a whole. As a strong, passionate advocate for her town, I know that my hon. Friend will play a key part in that process.

Clearly, there are a number of facets to the regeneration of Halifax and the wider area. The new regeneration framework has been employed to support the Piece hall regeneration and to provide a basis for reconnecting the town with the train station and other areas that have perhaps become too fragmented during the past 20 or 30 years. A co-ordinated, holistic approach will take account of the gems in Halifax, such as the Piece hall, the surrounding public realm and the train station. If we can link those up together and provide an attractive environment, the regeneration and the prosperity of Halifax will fly.

On the back of that, the council is commissioning a master plan for Halifax town centre that will capitalise on and improve the physical links between the regeneration projects I have highlighted today. The plan will also make proposals for the future regeneration of the town that will be assessed for commercial viability and heritage impact as part of the process. A key objective for the master plan is to provide a new commercially viable future for the Piece hall. I was pleased to hear that Calderdale’s draft local area agreement was submitted on time and that the proposed indicators have been accepted by central Government. The LAA notes the need for regeneration and actively promotes the use of cultural assets to achieve that. It also mentions the importance of the Piece hall.

The LAA is an important step forward. That vision, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend, is vital, and she is a great leader of it for Halifax. The vision encompasses other vital cultural strands, including a new university centre partnership between Calderdale college, Leeds Metropolitan university and the council. My hon. Friend mentioned the importance of higher education to provide a skills base for Halifax, and the partnership will work on the future provision of a university centre to be located in Halifax town centre. That is linked to the regeneration of the Piece hall and the surrounding area. My hon. Friend and I have an image in our minds of the fantastic potential of providing a skills quota regarding the Piece hall. In addition, the council is in close collaboration with voluntary and community organisations, particularly the Square Chapel Centre for the Arts, to cement its future as an integral element of the Piece hall quarter. That mix of cultural, educational and commercial provides a powerful option for achieving the ambitions for the Piece hall that we all share.

This has been a fascinating debate. To reiterate the point I made earlier, I am pleased that my hon. Friend secured time to raise the issue of the role of the Piece hall in the regeneration of Halifax town centre, the wider area and, frankly, the north of England as a whole—the issue is that important. As I said at the outset, I share strongly her view that the regeneration of the Piece hall should be the driver for the regeneration vision of the whole town. I understand that the council is committed to the development of the town and is working closely with the regional development agency—Yorkshire Forward—to realise some of those ambitions. Obviously, there is a long way to go and where possible I and my Department want to help support the work that is taking place to develop the economy of Halifax and the wider Calderdale district.

I am sure that the 18th-century weavers would still recognise the fabric of the Piece hall, but we need to ensure that the vision that my hon. Friend mentioned is realised during the next few years, so that it has a fantastic, prosperous, world-class use for the 21st century. As an architectural gem, that is what the Piece hall deserves, and Halifax and my hon. Friend deserve that, as well.

Order. Before I move on, perhaps I could mention that next time we have a debate on Halifax, a street plan of the town centre would help the Chair keep up with what is being discussed.