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First White Cloth Hall in Grave Danger

· Joseph Sheerin

The East Wing of the former First White Cloth Hall in Leeds

Leeds Civic Trust has understandable concerns about the historic First White Cloth Hall on Kirkgate with the lack of progress putting the building under serious threat.

For the best part of thirty years, the future of one of Leeds’ most important buildings has been in constant flux. The First White Cloth Hall on Kirkgate has been the subject of persistent to’ing and fro’ing as owners and organisations have sought to find a way to make the Hall a vital part of the city once more – but now, Leeds Civic Trust have run out of patience and we’re left wondering if there will ever be a way out of this mess?

The History of First White Cloth Hall

The front of the original First White Cloth Hall, Leeds

The construction of First White Cloth Hall marked the beginning of Leeds’ industrial importance. As a way to swat aside the threat of neighbouring Wakefield becoming the region’s powerhouse with their own covered cloth hall, the building on Kirkgate was erected in 1711.

As Leeds’ prominence grew, the building was soon became outgrown by the demand, and it was replaced by the Second, Third and Fourth White Cloth Halls over the course of the next 180 years. The quartet of cloth halls contributed to Leeds being the cloth marketing capital of Europe at one point, giving the city the platform to be the place it is today.

For 250 years, the First White Cloth Hall was a mainstay of the Leeds’ commerce, being consistently reinvented as the city developed. But, and this is the problem that is particularly grating the folk at Leeds Civic Trust, since the building fell out of proper use in the seventies, little or no changes have been made to a heritage-damaging situation.

Forty Years of Hurt

First White Cloth Hall, Leodis

Credit: Leodis

The building was taken over by Speciality Shops, also owners of Leeds Corn Exchange, in 1986, with plans for renovation and a shopping development but they abandoned that plan in the early 1990s. In 2001, Emco Estates took over, with a vision of creating a ‘Bohemian retail/leisure destination’ – but again, nothing happened.

By 2006, English Heritage, Leeds City Council and Leeds Civic Trust stepped in to try and help Emco resolve the situation. They transferred the building to its current owners and Emco sub-company City Fusion Ltd. who have spent the last decade looking at ways to resurrect the First White Cloth Hall.

The problem is, none of those plans – including knocking down the west wing of the building, or building a hotel and leisure complex behind it – were in keeping with the deep history of the area.

As the city’s oldest street, Kirkgate has plenty of significance and it needs to be treated that way. By 2009, the west wing had been knocked down and the lack of movement had caused the Leeds Civic trust to try and move heaven and earth to get First White Cloth Hall and Kirkgate moved back to the top of the heritage agenda.

Desperate Times, Desperate Measures

First White Cloth Hall

Everything was looking up in 2013, when Leeds City Council had successfully applied for a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, joining contributions from the Council and English Heritage, for a £1 million pot for the First White Cloth Hall’s renovation.

It seems, however, that money is still the problem. With City Fusion expecting the repairs needed to reach £2 million pounds – not matching the building’s worth – there is a reluctance for any progress to be made.

And this has put the building itself at risk. Over the past decade or so, the coming and going of all parties has meant that one of the most important buildings in Leeds city centre is in the worst possible state, bar, perhaps, the rest of it falling down.

Kevin Grady, Director of Leeds Civic Trust, has explained, “The First White Cloth Hall should be one of the jewels of Leeds heritage… decisive action needs to be taken now. Surely 9 years of serious negotiation with no real progress is long enough.”

Can It Be Saved?

There could be an opportunity for Leeds City Council to take a Compulsory Purchase Order out on the building, and draw up a plan for its future, but that’s not the ideal situation here.

What we really need is for all the parties involved – City Fusion Ltd, Leeds City Council and Leeds Civic Trust – to come together and find a solution on a thirty year old problem. And with the time ticking on for their Heritage Fund Lottery money, it’s approaching now or never for First White Cloth Hall.

The fact that the project is going to cost more than the building will be worth is always going to be a sticking point, but realistically, how can you put a price on a piece of the city’s heritage? We’re with Kevin Grady on this one – something needs to be done to save First White Cloth Hall, and it needs to be done fast.