Green light to reduce height of historic Stonebridge Mills chimney

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Plans: Stonebridge Mills, Farnley.

By John Baron

Plans to reduce the height of a landmark chimney at historic Stonebridge Mills by six metres for safety reasons have been approved in principle by city councillors this afternoon.

Stonebridge Mills Ltd wants to reduce the former mill chimney, at the Grade II Listed building off Stonebridge Lane in Farnley, as work continues on a scheme to create 112 homes at the new Stonebridge Beck development.

The application also includes new steel structural bands to the bottom eight to ten metres of the chimney in a bid to make it structurally safe.

There have been six letters of objection to the proposals, arguing alternative options should be considered as opposed to reduction, including re-building the chimney and that it has been in situ for 200 years.

Objectors include civic watchdog group Leeds Civic Trust, which says the chimney is a ‘significant local feature’, and Farnley and Wortley councillors David Blackburn and Ann Forsaith (Green).

Councillors at Leeds Civic Hall heard the developer wants to take off the top 10 metres of the chimney and build it back up in natural stone so the overall reduction is six metres. Structural engineers highlighted the instability slitty of the structure and say that the chimney is at risk of failure via cracks opening up and that it’s necessary to reduce the bearing pressure below the foundation.

Work is under way at the Stonebridge Mills site in Farnley. Photo: John Baron/westleedsdispatch.com

Speaking against the application, Cllr David Blackburn (Green, Farnley & Wortley) argued that the chimney was of ‘significant local importance’ and a landmark off the Ring Road, on the border between Farnley and Wortley. He questioned why the issues with the chimney’s safety hadn’t been raised at an earlier stage of the planning process and said there were other engineering solutions available to make it safe.

“I broadly support the overall development and it is coming along quite well, but this is a step too far,” he told the south and west plans panel meeting.

Engineer Jeremy Tetley, from structural and civic engineers Fairhurst, who carried out a survey of the chimney said engineers had found and that the base of the chimney was narrower than expected. He said access to the foundations had not been possible at an earlier stage due to asbestos needing to be cleared.

“It may have stood for more than 150 years, but it hasn’t stood with the safety that’s required by modern standards and it is unlikely that it would stand for another 50 years,” he said. “We are making the request to lower its height on public safety grounds.”

Cllr Trish Smith (Cons, Pudsey) had reservations about the proposals. She said: “Given the length of time developers have been on site this is a very late item for us to be considering. The chimney does have architectural merit and it is worth saving in its current form, along with the other architectural buildings on the site.”

Cllr Neil Walshaw (Lab, Headingley) supported the planning application. He said: “People in the room are learning a lesson about the Victorians. Perhaps we should all be watching more Horrible Histories as I hate to break it to people, but they were just as likely to throw things up as well as they were to construct engineering marvels. This is not an Italianate or Giotto tower, the ones in Leeds city centre are definitely worth saving. They are exquisitely engineered. This is not one of those towers.

“It is about basic physics. The current height cannot be maintained without deconstructing the chimney and building a larger foundation and then reconstructing the whole chimney. We don’t do this for castles simply because it wouldn’t be the same castle. This wouldn’t be the same chimney.

“Multiple sources of engineering expertise have said the best way of maintaining the heritage of the site is to go with the course of action we have before us. Reconstructing is different, it’s not the same as preserving.

“The most reasonable action to maintain the heritage is the approach set out in the recommendations. A considerable number of people are going to live in this area and I don’t think they’re going to want to see the chimney coming at them at 10 metres per second. I think they’d like a nice, safe chimney where you can enjoy the heritage benefits, of which there are many, but in as much safety as they can.”

Cllr Sharon Hamilton (Lab, Moortown) took a different view. She said: “The applicants were well aware that there was work to be done. We passed the original planning application on the understanding that the chimney would remain. Nothing is impossible, it can be rebuilt and be made safe. I’m hearing here that we’re not taking safety into consideration – of course we are taking safety into consideration! We want them to do the work and make it safe for the residents and members of the public and it can be done. I won’t be voting in favour of this proposal.”

Cllr Jools Heselwood (lab, Bramley & Stanningley) said having listened to the experts she ‘would not sit here with my health and safety hat on and overturn the application’ knowing there are serious concerns with safety. “We need to see sense and make sure it is made safe and preserved for the next couple of hundred years,” she added.

Meeting chair Cllr Eileen Taylor added: “The chimney is lovely and I would love it to stay. Public safety is always my concern.”

Cllr Barry Anderson (Cons, Adel) questioned the council’s policies in dealing with planning applications to avoid late applications like this on heritage sites. He said the issue with safety should have been raised at outline planning stage.

Six councillors voted for the application in principle, with one against and two abstentions. Approval is subject to conditions, including agreement on type of materials used. 

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