Andrew Wilson is co-director of Huddersfield-based Same Skies, the citizen-led regional democracy network and think tank for West Yorkshire, founded in 2015. More than 350 people took part in Same Skies’ alternative manifesto process in 2021, contributing well over 700 hours of time to come up with new ideas and existing good ideas for the first West Yorkshire Mayor.
It’s time for Kirklees Council to trust the people of Huddersfield.
Over the last three years the former Piazza shopping centre in Huddersfield has become one of the most interesting arts and community facilities in the north of England.
The diversity and quality of activities now happening in the empty shop units is unique, ranging from dance classes for people with learning disabilities to experimental music concerts featuring performers from around the world.
Audiences for art and cultural activities have trebled, and the Piazza was the venue for Worst Record Covers, which gained positive national media attention for the town and was probably the most successful exhibition Huddersfield has seen.
This transformation is due to the creativity and hard work of Huddersfield people along with the design of the Piazza buildings.
In less than three years, and with a global pandemic in the middle, the Piazza Arts Centre has become a crown jewel of arts and community activity in Huddersfield.
Kirklees Council also deserves proper credit for its part in this success. Buying the Piazza shopping centre was a bold move, and by stepping back and letting Huddersfield people and organisations run their activities in the empty units without preconditions, the council gave them the best possible starting point.
That hands-off approach has been rewarded with the transformation of an empty shopping centre into a flourishing arts centre.
So far, Kirklees Council hasn’t properly recognised its own achievements, and the Piazza Arts Centre is still officially scheduled to be demolished later this year.
However, there are encouraging signs that new ideas are being promoted in the town hall and the Piazza Arts Centre will be saved.
Councillors from two different political parties have already made lengthy visits to the arts centre, spending several hours listening to the stories of the Huddersfield people and organisations that have transformed the Piazza.
Councillors from those parties are now in a good position to weigh up a range of possibilities for the piazza and the centre of Huddersfield. Invitations to do the same have been extended to councillors who currently have decision-making authority, and though those invitations haven’t yet been accepted, it can only be a matter of time.
Any decisions taken about the Piazza and the area around the library will affect the centre of Huddersfield for at least 50 years. The council’s current plan for the area, called the Blueprint, comes at a cost of more than £200 million.
With so much at stake, the people of the town and their elected representatives from all parties need to be able to compare and contrast a range of possibilities. There are already two proposals on the table, and others may also emerge.
Alongside the Blueprint artists’ impressions, which focus on bulldozing the hard work of Huddersfield people, is a proposal firmly based on evidence about the Piazza Arts Centre.
This second proposal challenges the London-based architects and consultants involved to properly respect and value what has been achieved by the people and organisations of Huddersfield.
Designs should be produced to enhance that achievement by improving the existing Piazza buildings for arts and community uses, rather than flattening them. The council simply needs to change the brief it gives to the architects in order to include this option.
To properly evaluate the different possibilities, public discussion about the town centre needs to be informed by three things: facts, history and up-to-date ideas.
Same Skies, the citizen-led regional democracy network and think tank for West Yorkshire, is still the only organisation to recognise the unique quality of the Piazza Arts Centre and gather the facts needed to properly understand what has happened. Read more HERE.
We began our evaluation in October 2020, so there has been plenty of time for others to do the same. The council has set aside well over one million pounds to pay for consultants, and some of this budget can be used to study the value of the Piazza Arts Centre.
To ensure fairness and transparency, all of the arts and community groups involved should have a say in commissioning the study, and its evidence gathering and reporting should happen in public.
The history of previous redevelopments in Huddersfield town centre can help to understand what might work in the future.
The Piazza shopping centre was completed in 1974 and, according to the Blueprint proposals, less than 50 years later it should be demolished. The Kingsgate centre opened in 2002 and big changes are planned.
Why is the same approach, knocking things down and building something else at great expense, going to work this time? Shouldn’t Huddersfield try something different instead?
Finally, decisions about the future of the town centre should be based on up-to-date ideas. The artists’ impressions from the Blueprint proposals include a new art gallery and music venue.
This approach, constructing expensive new arts buildings and hoping for the best, has been tried repeatedly in towns and small cities up and down the country over the last 25 years with limited, if any, success.
Indeed the latest research, from the Arts and Humanities Research Council “questions the impact of major cultural buildings in urban regeneration.”
Instead the evidence, from one of the most in-depth studies ever attempted, favours the alternative vision based on renovating and developing the Piazza Arts Centre.
High streets up and down the country are struggling at the moment, and Huddersfield is no different. What is different in this town is that Kirklees Council has the option to take a unique approach that is a model for other places.
The success of the Piazza Arts Centre is down to local people, the right building, and the council’s own role in providing the space then stepping back. It’s time to build on that success, not bulldoze it.