Four years after MP Rachel Reeves called for a crackdown on anti-social behaviour in Armley, the town stands on the brink of possible change with the prospect of additional investment. But has it been able to shake off its demons? NEIL HUDSON investigates …
Ask anyone in Armley what problems affect the town and you will invariably get two responses: shoplifting and drugs.
Four years ago, street drinking might also have ranked as high – but thanks to a concerted effort by police, councillors and other agencies and the implementation of public service protection orders (PSPOs), that has been drastically reduced.
However, while shoppers and traders seem to agree progress has been made, they say more still needs to be done.
Now the town is poised to apply for something called ‘business improvement district’ status (BID for short), a government-backed scheme which is already up and running in hundreds of other towns and city centres across the country, including Leeds and Otley.
BIDs work by getting businesses within a defined area to pay a small percentage (typically one or two per cent) of their rates into a pot.
The programme lasts for five years and the money collected is then used to fund improvements in the town, according to priorities identified by those paying in. If Armley BID succeeds, it will likely be the smallest in the country, generating around £50,000 a year.
If businesses back the plan, the money could be used to further improve the town, with extra security, more publicity and annual events.
Peter Mudge is Leeds City Council’s neighbourhood centres co-ordinator and the closest thing Armley has to a town centre manager.
He’s already helped Otley with its BID and is in the process of leading similar charges in Morley, Harehills and Skipton.
He is optimistic about what it could mean for the future of Armley.
“There are about 300 BIDs in the UK now,” he explains when we meet in Armley Library. “If Armley gets one, I imagine it would be the smallest in the UK, which is no issue. At the moment, I think Otley is the smallest, it generates about £75,000 but covers every single business.
“If approved, then for the next five years, all businesses pay into the pot. It’s based on rateable value, so if your rates are £6,000, you would pay £60 [assuming a one per cent levy]. The money does not go to the council but stays with the BID board in Armley to deliver on the priorities set by them.”
But while applauding Armley’s first steps along the road to real change – notwithstanding the reintroduction of its annual festival in 2016 – Peter freely acknowledges the town still has problems.
“A few years ago, there was lots of antisocial behaviour and street drinking. People would be drunk and shouting across the road and swearing. Using PSPOs, we put the most rigid enforcement in place. We are up to the level now where if anyone is caught drinking alcohol on the street, it’s taken away from them and chucked down a drain.
“We have stemmed the tide, we don’t have street drinking like we used to.
“I want to make the town centre a nice place for people to come. It’s not our wish to punish but we want people to visit and say ‘What a pleasure’.”
Right now, the problem appears to be drug dealing and drug taking but plans are already in place to tackle it, with new street signs ordered. Peter adds:
“I’m happy with the way it’s going. There is a drug problem in the town, in terms of people dealing. We are putting signs up soon to tell them we know they are operating and that if we catch them, they will be prosecuted.
“Armley is becoming an ever nicer place to visit. That means people start taking pride and putting pot plants outside their shops.”
Anyone unfamiliar with Town Street might marvel at its variety of independent shops.
Yes, it has its betting shops and off-licences (although no new ones since 2018 and a pledge to re-examine existing 24-hour licences), takeaways and charity shops but you could argue it’s fared better than some, boasting a quality bakery, hardware shop, two butchers, hair salons and cafes.
A new restaurant is due to open soon, there’s talk of a mural at the Crab Lane entrance to town and the possibility of a ‘Men’s Shed’ and ‘Women’s Shed’ to bolster the sense of community.
Signs of improvement abound. Aside from the occasional engraved flagstones telling you the town was mentioned in the Doomsday Book or that Armley Chapel dates back to 1630, there are relatively new planters and flower boxes and all the street furniture has recently been repainted.
Over and above this, graffiti is now quickly removed and action is being taken on aggressive begging, there’s talk of a VE Day celebration and Armley in Bloom spelling out the words ‘Armley Village’ (the name they want the town to adopt) to welcome visitors.
Elsewhere, some buildings have been given a fresh lick of paint (although more is needed), benches used by drunks have been removed, rough sleepers offered help and if the BID is approved, there’s talk of a regular rosta of street entertainment and a further sprucing up in general.
All that said, problems of drugs, shoplifting and crime in general remain and some traders are stoic.
Mustafa Jamali, 52, who has just marked his 20th year running his eponymous hardware store, is sceptical about the BID.
“I think [Armley has a] bad press but the council are doing their bit. It’s the same as every other town really. We need more variety in terms of shops and a car park which people know about would be useful. We do not need more off-licences, we need things to attract families, like shoe shops, clothing shops.”
Another shopkeeper, who asked to remain anonymous, says a cultural change is needed.
“Drug dealing is a problem. So is shoplifting. Armley has been Armley for the last 100 years. People are the same. So, why does Armley have these problems?
“There’s nothing wrong with education in the schools, it’s the parents and a lack of teaching their kids. The mentality needs to change. I have seen parents dropping kids at school and smelling of cannabis.”
Resident Diane Major, 56, has lived in Armley for seven years and works in a local shop. She too cites shoplifting and drugs as the town’s twin devils.
“I see shoplifting every day. When I first moved here, I didn’t realise what a long history Armley has and that’s one of its strengths. It could do much better for itself but it’s the people who take drugs who are making it difficult for everyone.”
David Skelton, 70, has worked at Skelton’s butchers at the top end of Town Street since 1965, taking over 39 years ago – he also lives in the town. He is co-chair of Armley Town Team and an ardent supporter of the BID. He says:
“Street drinking is a problem but it has improved by 50 per cent compared to 12 months ago. The trouble is, once you get a bad reputation, it takes a long time to get rid of it. Armley has a reputation.”
Commenting on the BID, he says:
“We still have to persuade businesses to vote for it. If they have any sense they will. If we can prove that, after five years, it’s working, then we can look at continuing it. People will have to agree to that, it won’t happen unless traders want it.”
Kim Grace runs cake decoration shop Cake Craft Etc and also co-chairs the Town Team. She says:
“We are working with police and other agencies to reduce crime and trying to encourage people not to be frightened to come onto Town Street. There are fewer beggars and rough sleepers.
“There’s lots of independent shops here. It’s this bad image that Armley has and we’re working hard to change that with things like Armley Festival, the Christmas lights switch-on, Armley In Bloom and so on. We’ve got big plans.”
Armley Labour Councillor Lou Cunningham is spearheading the BID and says they should know soon if it has enough support.
“We need to get agreement from businesses. If there’s not enough buy-in, it won’t go any further.
“I think there will be opportunities to use the money as creatively as businesses like, for things like more CCTV, extra lighting, street entertainment. Having that extra pot of money could be really important for Armley.”
Four years on from lighting the touchpaper to meaningful change in Armley, Labour MP for West Leeds Rachel Reeves remains realistic about its problems. She says:
“This all came about from knocking on doors and being told by people who lived in Armley and had done for years that they did not want to go into town.
“We commissioned a survey and had over 900 responses, the biggest I’ve ever had. Then we had public meetings, which were well attended.
“I am not claiming that in the four years we have turned around Town Street but I do think there are some chinks of lights and bright spots. The community is coming together to tackle some of the problems. Armley Festival has gone from strength to strength.
“We need more policing resources, a few years ago police were doing much more out of the one-stop shop in Armley. There are problems with anti social behaviour on Town Street with drugs and so on but one would hope the government’s commitment to more police will lead to a greater presence in Armley.
“We also need to do more about street drinking, homelessness and provision for young people, which is severely lacking.”
But she is in general optimistic. She adds:
“There are so many new businesses popping up in Armley in some of the old retail units and mills, from coffee companies to breweries and many more. When we set up West Leeds Small Business Link, we had over 100 businesses sign up.”
Businesses will vote later this year to decide whether or not to back the BID.
Otley chairman urges Armley businesses to back the BID
THE chair of Otley BID, Tom Hartley, has urged businesses in Armley to back the BID plan.
Mr Hartley, who works at Christopher Little & Co financial advisers, said the scheme had only been a boon for their town. He said:
“They are generally operated in bigger towns but becoming more common in smaller towns.
“Ours is run by volunteers, so I imagine there would need to be a similar situation in Armley.
“Ours generates about £75,000 and you can do a lot with that, from floral displays to hanging baskets, buying Christmas trees, buying new planters or replacing old ones.
“In Otley, some of the money is used to market the town, we have also paid for art installations and have a street cleaner who goes above and beyond what the council do.
“It’s enabled us to stage all sorts of events.
“We have a coffee festival coming up at the end of April and an armed forces day in July, we also had maps installed.
“The other thing it does is give businesses a voice when it comes to dealing with the council and other organisations.”
Otley renewed its BID in November 2018. More about Otley BID can be found here.