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Cash-strapped council to speed up sale of historic Abbey Mills

The sale of a Grade II Listed mill complex in Kirkstall will be speeded up in an attempt to help shore up the city’s finances.

Cash-strapped Leeds City Council, which expects to have to make £118m of savings next year, is looking to sell historic Abbey Mills, which had been the subject of a possible community takeover to transform the buildings into a mix of community space and affordable housing.

The council’s decision to speed up the sale is a blow to the Kirkstall Valley Development Trust‘s long-running vision of running at least part of the site.

History: Abbey Mills in Kirkstall. Photo: Mark Stevenson

Members of Leeds City Council’s decision-making Executive Board will meet next week to discuss the report, which stated:

“Most recently Kirkstall Valley Development Trust (KVDT) has explored the potential to refurbish the premises for a mix of community space and affordable housing and were granted with £250,000 of funding from Homes England to support this feasibility work.

“Unfortunately as a result of the work undertaken – which has included building condition surveys, planning/ design work and financial modelling – the trust have concluded that they are not able to progress with a scheme due to the amount of grant funding that they would have required to support their delivery and operational model.

“It is with regret therefore, that the Council must now seek to dispose of the property on the open market through a tender process.

“A market sounding exercise
undertaken in 2017 prior to KVDT’s involvement suggests that there would be good interest in the property and work undertaken by KVDT including a planning preapplication submission has determined that there is scope for a transformative scheme to be delivered and options to improve the existing vehicular access and
egress to the site which is a key area of concern.”

Kirkstall Valley Development Trust development director Chris Hill said:

“We understand the pressure to sell Abbey Mills, but are working with local councillors to make sure that any sale of the mill is conditional on the provision of a community hub of the scale presented in our feasibility study plans.

“Meetings will be held with councillors and officers after the Executive Board.”

A deal between KVDT and Leeds City Council was delayed last because of a disagreement whether a new access road into the mill was needed and issues with funding the development.

With the exception of two remaining tenants who occupy space within buildings on the entrance to the site, the main mill buildings were last occupied in 2011.

Further details about the sale have been included in a document known as a ‘confidential appendix’, which has not been made public. If the sale is approved next week, it is anticipated that marketing of the site will start in early 2021.

Councillors are now expected to agree to put the buildings up for sale at a meeting of the Executive Board on Wednesday, November 18. The report to be considered by councillors can be read in full here.

Council cuts

Last month, a scrutiny board meeting heard Leeds City Council believes it will face a £118m funding black hole – partly due to the effects of Covid-19 on its services.

Senior officers added that this could also mean up to 600 job losses and added around 1,000 council employees had expressed an interest in a “voluntary early leavers policy”. 

The meeting was told by council’s chief financial officer Victoria Bradshaw that the council was expecting extra money, known as a “provisional settlement” from Government later this year, although it was unclear what this would be. She added:

“Within the £119m, there is an inherent budget gap of £60m. But on top of that, due to Covid, we incurred an extra £60m, due to loss of income through our council tax, fees, rates and charges; but also through expenditure.

“This is an unprecedented level we are looking at for 2021/22. We worked in the summer to start to identify savings.”

The council’s director of resources and housing Neil Evans said the council would have to look at selling some of its sites, known as “asset disposal” in order to make ends meet. He said:

“We are very early in bringing forward savings – I don’t think we have ever been quite as early as this. There will be more to come in the meetings in November and December.

“We are of the view that we need to find about £80m of recurrent savings for 2021/22, then we will be looking at using one-offs to bridge between £80m and £119m. It includes things like asset disposal.”

Labour politicians also point to reduced funding from Government over the past ten years for some of the financial crisis.

Abbey Mills dates back to the 19th century and is on the council’s ‘buildings at risk’ register.

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