By David Spereall, local democracy reporter
Tucked just round the corner from a portion of Leeds’ outer ring road lies a site with a nod to the city’s rich industrial past, and its future as well.
Stonebridge Mills in Wortley, just two miles to the west of the city centre, was once a bustling hotbed of activity with a big hand in the woollen trade that put Leeds on the global map.
Built around 1800, the now Grade II-listed site was fuelled by a huge water tower and was, in the words of Farnley & Wortley Green Party councillor David Blackburn “a massive local landmark.”
The late 1900s were not so kind to places like this, however, and with de-industrialisation came decay and disrepair for Stonebridge Mills, as work at the site frittered away.
Now, the mills and the wasteland behind it have been given a new life and a new look, with 112 homes having been put up across 10 acres.
The old mill building itself has been retained and kitted out with spacious new family homes, while a neat terrace of cottages, which once housed the mill workers, has been sympathetically rebuilt.
New properties have been built from scratch on the land that was once derelict and around a third of the homes across the site are expected to be occupied by Christmas.
Not that this has been a quick process. Stonebridge Mills Ltd, which was formed out of a partnership between developers Advent and Rushbond, has been at this for more than seven years.
“I hate dereliction and typically when we buy a site like this it takes a long time to truly understand the site and to formulate a plan for buildings,” Tim Reeve, the managing director of Advent says.
“The site had been badly affected by vandalism and arson.
“It’s depressing when you see places falling to rack and ruin, but now we’re in the final stages of giving it a new lease of life.”
Developers bought the property off Tesco in 2017, after the supermarket giant had tried and failed to build a new store behind the old mill buildings, which would have still been derelict under the proposals.
That plan was strongly opposed by people in Farnley and Wortley and Tesco eventually walked away from the scheme.
There seems to be a widespread consensus that housing is a healthier outcome for the mills, but trying to keep the history alive in the face of crumbling structures, asbestos and rot has not been easy.
Obtaining planning permission while trying to adapt 19th century handywork into something fit for modern living comes with give and take, as people in the community fought to keep some of the site’s key features untouched.
“These things take an awful lot of blood, sweat, tears, time effort and strategy to get to where we are today,” Mr Reeve says.
“But that process is a healthy one. Those compromises actually improve the scheme and make for a more attractive proposition.”
The sore points have included the reduction in the height of the site’s chimney by around 20 per cent and the rebuilding of the mill cottages, both of which were done in the name of making them structurally sound.
The reduction in the size of the mill pond, which lies in front of the cottages, was controversial too, but done to keep the project “viable”, according to the developers.
Councillor Blackburn, who’s represented Farnley & Wortley on Leeds City Council for the last 25 years, has mixed feelings, though he does prefer the current scheme to Tesco’s “inappropriate” plans.
“Quite honestly I’m happy seeing it developed for housing, but perhaps we gave too much away (as a planning authority),” he says.
“The place was nearly falling down over the last 20 years.
“I’ve been round and it looks really nice. As developments go it’s good, but there are bits I was unhappy about.””
Rita Norman, from the Wortley History Group, has also been round the site recently, and is positive about what she’s seen.
“Personally I think they’re doing quite a good job,” she concludes.
“I think it’s better than pulling it all down and rebuilding it. It was so run down before.”
Mrs Norman also feels the reduction in the chimney’s height from 30m to 24m, has “been very well done, because you actually can’t remember it was higher than it was now.”
At one time, workers clocking off the for the day would have slipped through a narrow gate in the site’s perimeter wall and trudged up the steep Silver Royd Hill to get home for tea.
Silver Royd Hill no longer being the car-free road it was then, the gate has been permanently shut, so new homeowners don’t unwittingly step out into heavy traffic.
In many senses, the community that forms here over the next 200 years will be very different to the one that preceded it.
But the first signs that a community is taking shape here are already visible – trick-or-treaters politely pillaged the homes here for sweets at the end of last month.
“That’s the gold standard for developing any site – having a cohesive community that embeds itself within the wider environment,” Mr Reeve says.
The process of regenerating Stonebridge Mills has not come without patience, pain and controversy, but there is a vibrant feel to this place now.
That’s certainly an upgrade on the lifeless shell that nearly crumbled two decades ago.