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Armley Leeds

It’s got a bad rep, but Armley has loads going for it, and if we had our way, it would be the city’s next regeneration focus, following in the footsteps of the South Bank. Here’s why…

For over a decade, the South Bank, including Holbeck, has been the city’s primary regeneration focus – and the changes we’ve seen have been incredible. Large swathes of the South Bank have been transformed, creating a place that people want to live and work. The new residential developments are coupled with exciting employment possibilities, as the area is now home to a thriving creative hub, and has reconnected with its roots by attracting new manufacturing businesses, including the much lauded arrival of Burberry.

But that’s just the beginning. The South Bank is also home to the city’s new educational hub – as Leeds City College and the College of Building will soon be accompanied by the Ruth Gorse Academy and the new UTC, which promises to guide a new generation of engineers towards success. Add the southern train station entrance, which will soon evolve into a super station of sorts, as the HS2 platforms are integrated into it, and the addition of a 3.5 acre city centre park on the waterfront, and you’re looking at a very different place to the one that stood here twenty years ago.

They’re not done yet, in fact, the council have just released a revised plan for the future regeneration of Holbeck Urban Village, and there’s certainly still room for improvement throughout the South Bank, but seeing what they’ve accomplished got us thinking – what’s next? And the conclusion we came to, is Armley.

It’s a suburb with loads of potential

Armley Mills Industrial Museum

When Armley pops up in conversation, it tends to be for all the wrong reasons, but actually, the Leeds suburb has a hell of a lot going for it. In terms of location, it’s perfectly placed. The border reaches from the Armley Gyratory, just minutes from the city centre’s busy financial district, and follows the canal all the way up to Kirkstall Bridge, taking in some beautiful sights along the way.

It’s something Rachel Reeves, Member of Parliament for Leeds West, is only too aware of. “Armley has some real jewels. For instance, Leeds Industrial Museum is based in Armley Mills and after being partially flooded on Boxing Day has now been relaunched, better than ever. Gotts Park too is a vast expanse of beautifully kept park land in the centre of Leeds. ” She explained, “The Armley skyline is made up of iconic buildings like the old Methodist Chapel and St Bartholomew’s church, while Armley Town Street is home to many independent shops selling a whole variety of things.”

Add to this an excellent leisure centre that caters for kids and adults, the ever popular Canal Mills with its historic building repurposed to create a destination that people flock to, and Interplay Theatre, an incredible project that focuses on creating immersive, sensory theatre experiences for young people with disabilities. Already, we’re starting to reveal another side to Armley, one that’s often hidden behind the headlines.

Armley Junktion Leeds

“Above all, what Armley really has going for it is the people who live there.” Reeves told us, “There is a solid community spirit that welcomes new residents and provides resilience and support in times of difficultly.”

It’s not just the individuals either. We’ve seen some incredible projects come out of Armley in recent years, showing a real desire to help those around them. It was here that the Real Junk Food Project launched its first pay as you feel cafe, Armley Junktion, which cooks up tasty treats with food that’s otherwise destined for the bin. And it’s also here, upstairs in fact, that Fix It recycles old computers, selling them on for an affordable price.

Industry too, is starting to show glimmers of the possibility it holds. It’s already home to a number of high profile businesses, with independent ice cream brand Northern Bloc, long running communications agency Vista and popular event catering business Fresh Hospitality all taking up residence here, among many others.

And over the last few years, we have seen investment, with developments like the Old School Lofts creating 67 luxury flats in the former West Leeds High School, Strata building a cluster of affordable homes on the suburb’s border, just a kilometre from the city centre, and Opus North transforming the old DENSO Marston site into a new retail development.

But Armley isn’t without issues

Armley Leeds

But while we’re keen to focus on the positives, the negatives are impossible to ignore. They too are a reason why Armley should be the city’s next regeneration focus, because by dedicating time and resources to the improvement of the area, we can help to resolve some of the issues that residents are facing – issues that are effectively discouraging new people from moving into the area.

Armley Town Street is the focus of much attention, and for all the wrong reasons. Street drinking and anti-social behaviour have led to residents avoiding the suburb’s local high street, which is a crying shame, because its home to a host of independent stores that are well worth a visit.

“The biggest issues in Armley right now are problems to do with alcohol dependency and chronic illness. The symptoms of this have shown themselves in anti-social behaviour on Armley Town Street which has been turning away people who would otherwise want to go there.” Reeves explained, but what’s heartening here, is that they’re doing something about it, and they’ve tried to involve the whole community in their efforts.

Armley Leeds

The first step was a public consultation, which took place last September, and saw over 600 local people from the LS12 area sharing their experiences. A whopping 86% of them said they thought there were problems on Armley Town Street, and 72% said anti-social behaviour was the main problem, with 59% adding cleanliness into the mix and 46% citing a lack of shops.

The problem is, with the current issues, it’s hard to attract investment into the area – in fact, they’re soon to lose one of Armley’s thoroughfares, as Co-op have announced that they’ll soon be closing their store. Needless to say, it’s vitally important that they improve the situation – and they’ve already made a start, as Reeves explained. “Along with the Councillors, I have been working with the Police, Leeds City Council, local health organisations, and the newly formed community action group, All Together Armley, to tackle the anti-social behaviour and its deeper root causes.”

All Together Armley is something we’re particularly excited about. It’s made up of locals who are leading the charge for change and shows that the community is coming together to make Armley a better place to live. They’re already getting results too.

Armley Leeds

Armley Councillor, Alice Smart, is heading up the group, and she was keen to tell us about their progress. “Local councillors have been working closely with the police to get five injunctions for the most prominent street drinkers to keep them off Town Street. Four of these five men are now being treating for alcoholism and getting the support they need. We are also trying to get a cumulative impact policy implemented in Armley which will make it more difficult for new off-licenses to open in Armley and hopefully help reduce the systemic drinking problem in the area.”

It’s a big improvement, but there’s still a lot of work to do to address the concerns of residents and business owners – the latter, are the focus of a new forum that’s once again being spearheaded by Rachel Reeves.

“Now that there are signs of improvement, I have now been able to recently hold a business forum of local Armley businesses to see what can be done to attract more investment and footfall into the area.” She told us, “It’s brought together representatives from independent shops, small-medium enterprise and big high-street names with local branches to sit down and talk about what challenges are preventing investment and growth for the area.”

What does the future hold for Armley?

Armley Leeds

The next big step, is Armley Festival, which is planned for 6th August 2016 and will take place on Town Street, transforming it into a community space once more with stalls, live music and all manner of food. It’s being planned by All Together Armley, with the hopes of showing off everything that’s good about Armley, and hopefully getting the suburb attention for the right reasons for once.

And there’s a plan in place to continue improvements. “The three main aims are to ensure people feel safe walking down Armley Town Street, create an aesthetic that can rival other parts of Leeds and encourage investment and development that will benefit local residents,” Reeves explained. It’s a plan that’s been created and voted on by the community, and they’re taking the lead with its implementation too, through All Together Yorkshire, and with the help of both Reeves and the Council.

And the end game? “I would say that the aim to make Armley into a destination part of Leeds like Headingley or Chapel Allerton would be something, in an ideal world, to aim for.” Reeves told us, “Armley has its own way of doing things compared to other parts of Leeds and I would like to see it come to prominence as the place to set up new businesses, raise a family, and spend leisure time. I, and many others, will be working for as long as needed to make sure that this ideal vision is a reality in the coming years.”

Armley Junktion

So they want improve Armley’s standing in the city, making it a place where people want to live and work – wait, doesn’t that sound familiar? It’s the cornerstone of the Council’s plans for the South Bank regeneration. But there’s one big difference here – the South Bank is a priority. The whole city is aware of it, it’s got a comprehensive and well documented strategy and the full weight of the Council behind in. Doesn’t Armley deserve the same?

Rachel Reeves and Councillor Alice Smart, along with their colleagues, are doing amazing work – they’ve set the ball rolling. It’s heartening to see the community rally behind Armley to make it a better place to live, and we fully agree that any plans for the area need to be approved by the people who live there – but we also believe that to get the desired results, the Council will need to play a more integral role, essentially committing to making Armley their next regeneration focus.

If you’ve ever waded through the hefty documents on the South Bank’s regeneration, you’ve likely come across statements like this – “The Council will continue to play a lead role in facilitating activities through working in partnership with landowners, Government Agencies, the LEP, communities and investors, to deliver jobs, homes and high quality place-making.”

Armley Train Station Canal Road

That one’s taken from a report to the executive board, on the subject of the South Bank Regeneration on 15th July 2015, and it sums up, in a nutshell, the role they’re playing. In our minds, that’s the role they need to play in Armley’s regeneration too – facilitating change, securing investment and ultimately driving change. With, of course, the support of the community.

Obviously, the two projects are very different – even now, the South Bank has hectares of Brownfield land, that could be used for future developments, creating thousands of homes and even more jobs. Armley, on the other hand, is a bustling community with little land ready for development – but it does have potential, and with the right investment, it too could be transformed.

Imagine, for a moment, Armley with a train station – it has one, it’s just not in use, but by restoring it they could make it a more attractive proposition to homemakers – as they currently are in Kirkstall. Imagine Armley as a new business hub, where start-ups can get affordable office and industrial space, and established businesses can settle outside of the city centre – all bringing new jobs to the area. Imagine Armley with a thriving high street, a host of well kept and well used public spaces, and a raft of new housing developments making it the go-to destination for first time buyers and young families.

That’s the future we want for Armley and that’s why we want it to be the city’s next big regeneration focus.

Armley Mills image copyright Leeds Museums & Galleries. Canal Road Station image copyright Tim Green, licensed under Creative Commons for commercial reuse. All other images copyright Sonia Pounder.