Piece of the action

Yorkshire Business Insider, March 2001

A radical redevelopment of the historic Piece Hall and the continuing success of Dean Clough are helping Halifax adapt to the new economy

For a town so firmly rooted in Pennine grit, Halifax is well used to change. The town's 18th century Piece Hall was built as a trading hub for the region's self-employed weavers, but became redundant within 30 years as the Industrial Revolution introduced mass production to textiles.

Having narrowly voted against demolition in the 1970s, the town council has struggled to keep the Grade I listed building open, with falling rents from the specialist retailers that line its galleries failing to meet the maintenance costs. Last August, it opened a competition for redevelopment proposals, with the winning bid coming from regeneration specialists Urban Splash and industrial heritage charity Works Trust.

The development will be the first in Yorkshire by Urban Splash, one of the key forces behind the renaissance of Manchester city centre. The proposed redevelopment will add new retail and leisure units around the historic hall, with improved access, facilities and landscaping. More controversially, the developers propose to turn the south side of the square into a hotel, the only way to generate the necessary revenues to preserve the Piece Hall and keep it open to the public.

The plan to give new life to old cloth aims to emulate the success of Dean Clough, once the world's largest carpet mill. Under the ownership of Sir Ernest Hall and family, it is now recognised as one of the most remarkable centres of enterprise and art in the country. The kilometre-long complex just outside the town centre now accommodates some 100 companies and over 3,500 employees, plus a thriving arts community including the Henry Moore Foundation Studio and the acclaimed Northern Broadsides theatre company.

Nineteen years after Hall acquired the complex, just two of the 15 mill buildings are awaiting renovation. The latest developments are the conversion of a mill annex into a 54-bedroom Travelodge, and the renovation of the former fire station to house the expansion of Alec Finch Insurance. A tenant since 1994, Alex Finch is a commercial and corporate insurance broker specialising in converted properties, which counts Dean Clough itself and Urban Splash among its clients.

"We see it as a real commercial and cultural centre," says Andrew Templeton, corporate insurance manager. "Dean Clough offers easy access for us, and more room for easy expansion. An expanding company is always on the move, and here there's always the space for you to fit in."

Among the recent arrivals is Stepstone Online Recruitment, which started operations at Dean Clough at the beginning of the year after integrating its Leeds and Manchester operations. "Halifax was a good access point in terms of the motorway network, and within Halifax, Dean Clough was the only viable option we had," says Gary Boyes, northern regional sales manager.

The large open floors of the mills adapt easily to modern office designs. "It provides quality office space in a good location at a fraction of the rates of Leeds or Manchester," says Charlie Wardroper, director of the office agency at Weatherall Green & Smith, the letting agents for Dean Clough.

The final phase of redevelopment will add up to 150,000 sq ft floorspace. "In the context of a local town like Halifax, that's a lot of square footage," Wardroper says. "Footloose occupiers will be attracted because you can go to a place like that without compromising the quality. A lot of demand will come from existing occupiers looking to expand, which will produce rental growth. I think rents in Halifax will creep up on the back of that."

Dean Clough aside, Halifax is not a major commercial centre. The town is dominated by the head office of the eponymous building society turned bank, another local institution with roots in the Industrial Revolution.

The Halifax remains the town's largest employer, with up to 8,000 employees split between the head office on Trinity Road, the massive data centre at Copley, and its offices at Dean Clough. Its loyalty to its home town has been a major factor in preventing the deterioration seen in other Pennine towns with the decline of traditional manufacturing.

Engineering group FKI, formerly Yorkshire's biggest exporter, moved its head office from Halifax to London last year to spend more time with its advisors, but the managers behind its growth remain firmly rooted in the town with corporate developer Gartland Whalley & Barker. GWB invests in unfashionable industries across the UK and US from its base in Crossley House, the 19th century manor house built by the original developers of Dean Clough, which provides what dealflow manager Deborah Gartland calls "an extremely pleasant environment in which to work".

"As Halifax is close to the motorway network and has good transport links, this allows easy access to all the major cities including London, Leeds and Manchester," she adds. "Our close proximity to Manchester Airport also allows for efficient, direct links to our Atlanta-based office in the States." The airport is now less than an hour away by car since the completion of the M60 around Manchester.

Halifax is almost alone in the broad M62 belt in not having hefty support from state aid or major European Structural Funding. But like anywhere, there are serious structural problems from the changing economy, in Halifax's case accelerated by increasing competition from other centres and out of town retail developments. In August last year, the town secured 13.8 million funding from the Single Regeneration Budget via Yorkshire Forward, part of 200 million package across West Yorkshire. The funds will be used to revitalise the town centre and help the growth of local SMEs through ICT training and facilities.

The one undoubted boom sector in the town centre is leisure, with the area around the infamous Booze Ring close to overheating with new bar developments. Indeed, a survey by online property information service HomeSight last year found that Halifax has the highest concentration of pubs per household in Britain, with twice the national average. How far this is an extra incentive for investors is a question that perhaps demands closer investigation.