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Victorian Mills

Volume 801: debated on Tuesday 11 February 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to bring back into use empty Victorian mills in the Pennine area of the North of England.

My Lords, England’s mills are the engines of the original northern powerhouse. With 2 million square metres of unused floor space, there is enormous opportunity to repurpose these historic buildings for residential, commercial and community use. We will capitalise on this, combining Historic England’s expertise with the Government’s £4.5 billion home building fund. Forty-five places identified as eligible to apply for the Government’s £3.6 billion towns fund are also located within the northern powerhouse, providing further opportunity to level up through returning the north’s industrial heritage to viable productive use.

I thank the Minister for her reply and for the meeting we had last week to discuss this. Historic England reports that there are more than 500 former textile mills in the Pennines region that are disused and falling into disrepair. These are iconic buildings, and many are listed. Conversion will bring many benefits; for example, an estimated 120,000 apartments could be put into these mill buildings. This would, at the same time, preserve a source of civic pride. Will the Government commit to housing funding to kick-start their regeneration?

I thank the noble Baroness for her Question. She is right to highlight the potential of these buildings and the important place that they hold within their communities. I have already touched on some of the big funding streams that will be going into this area; we hope that the combination of skills that organisations such as Historic England bring, in partnership with local authorities and those major funding streams, will result in a number of these buildings being redeveloped.

My Lords, there are some wonderful examples of how old mills being rejuvenated and given new life, such as Salts Mill in Saltaire and Manningham Mills, although there is a vast amount of empty space there. If they were icons of the old northern powerhouse, they are now becoming icons of dereliction. Does the Minister agree that if nothing is going to happen, then it would be better to knock them down? I do not favour that, but there needs to be a strategy that allows these wonderful buildings to be brought back into life, to be given a sort of resurrection.

The right reverend Prelate is right: the pattern of development and disrepair is very uneven. It often reflects the strength of the local economy, which in some areas permits commercial redevelopment and in others makes it much more challenging. With our arm’s-length bodies, we are exploring how to address the areas that the right reverend Prelate is concerned about.

My Lords, these are such interesting questions, and there is such a diversity of interests around the House. I once taught Anglo-Saxon literature. “Beowulf” is full of allusions to decrepit buildings left behind by the Romans. This seems as endemic a feature of the British landscape as its history. There are five hundred and something of these mills still standing, asking for something to happen to them. The tourist industry comes to mind—our industrial heritage is an important part of our history that it could well incorporate—but could priority be given to those mills that stand in places which do not, at the moment, attract that many visitors, to give them a focal point that could create a little bit of energy from the touristic side and in terms of our heritage?

There is a lot of energy going into these issues. The noble Lord is right that tourism is an important beneficiary of these mills’ regeneration. As he will know, the Government have just developed a new tourism deal. All these issues will be considered as part of it.

My Lords, I have spent a great deal of my life living in an area of textile mills. Can the Minister suggest how we overcome the challenges presented by the original use of these buildings; for example, where oil from the woollen industry has impregnated the floors and the fabric of them?

My noble friend raises a point about how previous usage impacts on the ability to regenerate. This is true across a range of historic and industrial heritage buildings, not just mills. Again, Historic England can provide a lot of expertise in this area, but I am aware that this is a matter of concern. Sadly, as a result of arson, in the last decade there have been more than 100 fires in the Bradford mills close to my noble friend’s home, but we are working with the fire and rescue services to address this.

My Lords, will the Government replace the money we have received up to now from the EU for heritage projects, without which mill conversions will be significantly more difficult?

The details on that are not yet fully worked out but the noble Earl will be aware of the shared prosperity fund which is looking to address a number of areas of previous EU funding.

My Lords, Brierfield Mill, a large grade 2 listed building in east Lancashire, now known as Northlight, is being redeveloped as a joint venture between Pendle Borough Council—I declare my interest—and a local development company, with a £32 million project of investment in leisure, arts, apartments, work spaces and canal-side moorings, with much more to come. Will the Minister take back the lessons from Brierfield Mill that the way to carry out successful projects of this kind is for them to be promoted and carried out by the local authority, working together with local businesses and local people, and for the Government to provide the necessary funding for it to happen, but then to strictly avoid the time-wasting and energy-sapping temptation to micromanage the project from Whitehall or even from the LEP?

The Government are keen on devolving power to the regions and this type of partnership and community engagement is exactly what we are aspiring to.