A Simple Solution to the Clarence Dock Ghost Town?

I am grateful to the very wonderful Emma Bearman (@culturevultures) for sending me a link to a piece  in the YEP by Rod McPhee in which he shows just how very simple it should be for the ‘big cigars’ of Leeds to sort out the Clarence Dock Ghostown in their upcoming ‘Summit’.  Apparently, ‘we just have to give people a reason to go there’.

Step 1 in the Mcphee masterplan is to significantly reduce the cost of parking in that part of town.  So the car park owner takes a financial hit.  Or the ‘costs’ are passed onto the tax payer.

Step 2: Get an ‘anchor’ tenant.   Find a ‘Harvey Nicks’ equivalent who will take up residence in the Dock and make it a ‘destination’.  Does Mr McPhee have any idea how many such developments are chasing so few ‘anchor tenants’ who have the money, the confidence and the brand power to really animate a new development?  Anyway – wasn’t this what the Royal Armouries was meant to do?  Perhaps we could ‘persuade’ Steve Jobs to open the North’s Premier Apple Store?

Step 3: Sort out the rest of the shops:  Cunning plan.  Perhaps Borders might like to open up an outlet?  Oh! Wait a minute…no….Most retailers are struggling to hang on even in places of high footfall.  Expecting them to move into a ghost town on the hope and a prayer that it is about to spark into vibrant commercial life is, well, naive.  Some of the early adopters who moved into Clarence Dock from the start have since pulled out as the enterprise fairytale failed to materialise.

Step4: Provide an entertainment complex such as a cinema or concert venue.  Smart idea that. Perhaps we could have Leeds Arena 2 please?  And put  another nail in the coffin of the few remaining independent cinemas in Leeds by bringing in another Vue or Showcase.  Yes, lets provide more playthings for the rats who are still running.

Step 5: Provide more facilities for the residents in the 1100 apartments that are down there.  Give them more of what they need – on their doorstep to stop them having to trek a whole mile into town.  Crikey, we have built them their own private footbridge over the river!  Of all of the neighbourhoods in Leeds that don’t have access to good affordable food shops I suspect the residents of Clarence Dock would not come high on the list of priorities.  And what sense does it make to reduce footfall and spend in the City Centre just to increase it in the Dock?  This is a zero sum game in which we would be robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Step 6:Stage more events – perhaps more markets to drag people in from the suburbs.  Well Mr McPhee in case you hadn’t noticed the markets have gone to the suburbs – at least the ones with cash – with popular farmers markets now established in most of Leeds leafy suburbs.  Now if we could develop a really impressive arts based market on a scale that would attract people from much further afield.

Whatever happened to the Dark Arches market?  Oh yes – it got turned into a car park.  And soon we will have another £13.6m thrown at the Dark Arches to provide the elusive residents of Granary Wharf and the not so elusive residents of City Inn a more convenient entrance to the station than our recently refurbished (£4.6m) Neville Street provides.

Step 7: Improve the road signs and make it easier for people to get there.  Hm!  If there is something there worth visiting the SATNAV and smartphone generation are going to find it Rod.  Inadequate signage might be a symptom of sloppy planning – but we are hardly dealing with root causes here.

Step 8: Cater for the office workers.  (A point of correction Rod, I don’t think there is a Starbucks there any more.  It wasn’t profitable.)  There is so much office real estate in Leeds chasing relatively few office workers.  We can try to make the place even ‘happier and shinier’ to attract those happy shiny people – but there are simply too many such developments in the City chasing too few employers.  And if Clarence Dock did become THE office destination of choice in Leeds – it would be to the detriment of other Leeds sites.  Unless of course we do (usually very expensive) deals to lure a large employer from out of the region.  But such inward investment rarely sticks.  This strategy fuelled growth through the nineties and the early noughties as we lured in financial services, call centres and the associated industries (including the euphemistically titled Gentlemans’ Clubs) but now that times are tough we can expect many of those to move on to pastures cheaper.

Rod says that sorting out Clarence Dock is hardly breaking the enigma code.  And following a recipe that says ‘throw money at it’  is indeed hardly rocket science. We could do the same thing with Holbeck Urban Village, Temple Works, Tower Works, Granary Wharf,  The Gateway, Wellington Place, Trinity, Velocitude, Lateral, The Mint and Raptor (OK some of those don’t actually exist – but you get my point!).  And Mr McPhee, despite £200bn of quantitative easing, there is still little or no money to throw at developments that cannot wash their face.  Nor will there be any time soon.

But just suppose for one moment that Mr McPhee got his way.   The big cigars decide to sell off some more of the family silver to throw good money after bad….The idiot proof answer to rebooting the Leeds economy is adopted…

More office work/more retail/more entertainment/more consumption?    A continued expansion of the rat race.  We are hardly looking at the yellow brick road to sustainability are we?  Nor are we looking at any realistic strategy for narrowing the gap in this city between the haves and have nots.  Instead we build a monetary vacuum cleaner to suck up as much money as possible from the Leeds economy and return it to institutional shareholders and investors based elsewhere.  Anyone still got a real appetite for ‘Business as Usual’?

So what is my alternative?  What would I do?

Well, I for one would do more, much more to encourage and develop enterprising people like Emma, whose work with Culture Vultures is done on a shoestring but makes a significant contribution to the cultural and economic wellbeing of the city.  And Emma is not a rare beast.  A magical entrepreneur.  She is just a (relatively) normal citizen – doing her bit, following her mojo.  There are thousands of people in the city doing remarkable projects, distinctive, creative and imaginative.

Let’s not subsidise the success of the ‘The Man’ in the big commercial (if only they were) developments.  Let’s invest in the many thousands of  wonderful residents in the city who are actively working to make things better.

Here is how. And here.

But this does approximate rocket science.  It is the enigma code.  But man HAS been to the Moon.  The Enigma Code was cracked. With care, passion, commitment and a tremendous sense of urgency.

It is not a quick, debt driven, electorally popular fix.

But it might just work.


  1. After seeing the back and forth between you and Emma this morning I have been looking forward to this and you have not disappointed. The answer is not to throw money at the place (if Starbucks bailed then what hope for most others?) This is a place that could be used to create something new and give a home to some of the hidden/neglected talent I speak to and work with every day.

    This should be looked at as an opportunity to do something different, something that will benefit the city and it’s people in the long term… although ‘long-term’ seems a forgotten term these days.

    Nice post Mike

    • Thanks for you comment Lee. The focus of our thoughts should not, I believe, be this (or any other) place. It is not about a search for some worthwhile use for a physical space. Presumably world class developers and architects have already had their crack at this and created a near ghost town. Place making has had its day.

      The focus needs to be on local people and developing passion, skills and commitment, and building networks of social capital that provide them with support, encouragement, advice and access to services and resources that can help. The problem with giving local talent a home is that often with the home comes an overhead – in the case of Clarence Dock – an expensive one. If we could get a critical mass of talented people in to re-animate the area we might have a temporary success – but the phenomena of economic cleansing could well kick in. As footfall picks up the artists and artisans get pushed out and the big brands move back in.

      Personally I am not certain that lack of a ‘home’ is really the barrier to much of the talent in the City. There is so much low cost space available. I think we need to learn more about how to collaborate and associate for mutual gain – and perhaps to be able to help things like the artsmix market to significantly raise their game and aspirations.

      Personally a ‘strategy’ that emerges from the carefully nurtured work of thousands of individuals in pursuing their hopes and dreams, and learning how to associate and collaborate would give Leeds a unique, diverse and potentially exciting future – not just economically, but also socially and culturally.

      Let the well-being roll!

  2. Thought provoking post Mike. I agree with practically everything you say apart from the car park charges. Making the car parking free would be the least expensive option in any attempt to increase footfall.

    But then it begs the question, ‘what are these extra footfalls supposed to do?’ Shop? Is that it?

    The days of building cathedrals to consumerism are over but getting rid of that sort of thinking is now the hard part. What we need are alternative ideas (and you have suggested one, well done!). To do this properly we need the poets and the artists to come up with the new visions which will provide the maps for the sustainable future. Invest in these assets first.

    • Ivor, thanks for dropping by.

      Make the car park free is a great idea. However someone had invested millions in that car park, and pays wages and other overheads fully anticipating a return on investment. It might be possible to do a deal where they are paid (by the council or perhaps other developers) to drop charges or make it free. But, someone will have to pay. It is not free. I am also not sure it would be the east expensive. 1648 spaces at £2 per hour….you do the maths…

      I think we are all poets and artists in our own way. There is no societal segment that has the answers. Artists Taking the Lead http://www.artiststakingthelead.org.uk/ is no less flawed in its analysis than entrepreneurs/developers/pigeon-fanciers taking the lead would be. I think we had a little spark of the potential when we had a writer, a cartoonist and community developer all chewing the cud for a while over a chilli tea.

      We need inclusive approaches based on people who are committed over the long term to making the difference. Hard work, perseverance, mastery of skills and organisation. Samuel Smiles wrote ‘Self Help’ in Leeds. He was the grandfather of the ‘self help’ industry. These were his themes. Not positive thinking and consumerism.

      Yes invest in artists. But invest (time, love, resources and sometimes money) in anyone who is prepared to make the effort to help themselves. Connect them with others. Wire up the city with activists and watch it run.

  3. Of course it’s not ‘free’, nothing is in our capitalist society. The trick is disguising the charge. Companies do this all the time – just consider ‘free banking’. If it’s footfall you are after, don’t penalize them before they even get there!

    I was using my artistic license when I talked about poets and artists. Anyone with the boldness and daring to have an alternative vision qualifies.

  4. Anyone with the boldness and daring to have an alternative (affordable) vision qualifies. – Hallelujah to that!

  5. I’d love to see an alternative, free spirited day of said connectors, artists, passionate lovers of Leeds coming together to play the ‘regeneration game!’

    Having spent time at the City Visioning conference a couple of years back – when the downturn was but a whisper away, there was a recognition that Leeds had to raise it’s game to step up a league (whatever that means) I can’t remember many of the other speakers (save Gary Lawrence from Arup) but clearly recall the interesting provocation by the Wayne Hemingway who pointed out just how few opportunities there were for play for families in the heart of the city, and how arriving at Leeds there was no real sense of direction, from any of it’s major transport hubs.
    We, representing the cultural sector were a minority at the big corporate shindig (and I had no ‘name/position’ to speak of, and hustled my way into the event). In the PM we broke off into smaller groups to talk about connectivity, culture and the like. Most of knew it would be an ultimately futile adventure!
    In the last two years so much has changed, spaces, hitherto unavailable for artists have become free. Risk taking and play is on the increase!
    Social media is helping to connect us up, we are wading in online with our hopes/fears/passions/irritation and little by little. We are finding kindred spirits, and defining our thinking little by little.
    I have a hopeless naivity, (my rose tinted specs are a decision, or I would not get out of bed) that we can make some small impact on our city. To discover the stories that bring us together, to help us feel proud, to have FUN!
    Why not let’s have an entirely futile day of dreaming together, with a feast of food and drink and draw up our creative alternative to mothballed sites, ghostships, and the like, safe in the knowledge that no public funder would have the ability to support our dreams! But we may just come out of it with a few good ideas that are worth exploring!

    • Thanks for the Comment Emma. Couple of observations. First of all a revolution in how we tackle regeneration needs more, much more than a day. It requires a facilitated process over a period of months or years. Coming Together Is a Start; Keeping Together Is Progress; Working Together Is Success.

      Secondly, while connectors, artists and passionate lovers of Leeds have been somewhat marginalised by professional planners, civil servants and developers (in spite of the attempts at ‘involvement and ‘participation’) and have much more to contribute, the goal must be to set up a process for all of the people that want to get involved. Artists, scientists, young and old, families, professionals, unemployed, entrepreneurs, public, private and third etc. We spend too much time conversing with those that see the world in the same ways we do…

      Also, for me, it is not about ‘different’ people coming up with ‘different’ plans. It is about leaving the planning process to rumble on but meanwhile encouraging things to emerge based on the passions and preferences of people and how they choose to associate. It is a different and much more organic and spontaneous approach to the emergence of progress and change. As Richard Sennett says in his wonderful book, The Craftsmen, it is not about building Cathedrals according to blueprints anymore. It is about facilitating the bazaar.

      Having said that – you throw the party and I’ll come along….it is exactly this kind of initiative that we need to learn to rally around and engage with….

  6. tiberiusleodis says:

    Haha, this really is a brilliant piece – and I hope one of many more to come!

    Poor old Rod has a bit of history with Clarence Dock which I briefly wrote about last year:

    Damn, it was a Ghost Town then, I’m guessing that even the ghosts have long since moved onto better things!


  7. “I’d love to see an alternative, free spirited day of said connectors, artists, passionate lovers of Leeds coming together to play the ‘regeneration game!’ ”

    This would be great but these are the same people who were driven out in previous years to make way for developments like Clarence Dock – as mentioned in the (great) article above, Granary Wharf was totally ruined in building the new areas and all the independent shops were forced out of the Corn Exchange (my friend being one of them) so they could build the ‘food emporium’, which I’ve walked into once, found dead and little there and walked out again. A few of these stores now seem to be scattered around Leeds but it’s just not the same as when they were all in the Corn Exchange or Granary Wharf together when it really seemed like little communites of shop owners. The CX used to be great on weekends when all the little stalls and tables sprung up. I’ve no idea where all these stores must have gone when they all got forced out but it would be great to have them back somewhere in the same area. Unfortunately I don’t think there is a place that could happen anymore.

    I’d actually had no idea that there was a shopping-type development down at the Dock until a few weeks ago when I heard it was in trouble. Hardly anyone I know knew it was there.

  8. Perhaps we have reached saturation point in the city centre. Leeds is determined to have its own Docklands/river development. It wants to be London or Manchester or Liverpool yet hasn’t got the natural assets.

    City centre living isn’t ideal, it’s okay if you’re of a certain age and on a decent salary but face it, Leeds is not a big city; it’s not got sprawling neighbourhood suburbs.

  9. I returned to Leeds a fortnight ago, after 10 years away. It’s changed, a lot. When I left Leeds was brimming over with confidence and building projects were going up all over, especially at the waterfront.

    It’s depressing to see how unsuccessful the waterfront development has been, I’d expected vibrancy but it’s really quiet here. Half the flats seem to be empty and the businesses are far from booming. This isn’t quite how it looked in the architect’s drawings and the promotional leaflets! And it’s a shame the Dark Arches closed.

    I’m living on a narrowboat and purchased a winter mooring at Clarence Dock. so to be selfishly honest I don’t mind if it’s a bit quiet here! There’s a few nice cafes and a deli nearby, that’ll do me for now. But it’s not good for Leeds.

    And Leeds seems to be a ghost town for boats, there’s hardly anywhere for visitors to moor compared to most canalside towns and cities. It’s like they’re trying to discourage boaters from living here. Clarence Dock only lets visitors stay for 48 hours, despite having lots of unused moorings behind the bridge. This whole area could be so much more than it is now.


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