Like Liverpool and other parts of the North, Yorkshire has a proud industrial heritage. The region’s mining and textile manufacturing background is reflected in the grandeur and elegance of its Victorian shopping arcades, imposing municipal buildings and rows of housing built for the workers of the Industrial Revolution.

The towns of Dewsbury and Hebden Bridge both played important roles in Yorkshire’s booming textile industry. Dewsbury was at the heart of the Heavy Woollen District, a cluster of small mill towns known for their heavyweight cloth manufacturing, while Hebden Bridge was nicknamed ‘trouser town’ – producing a million pairs a year at its peak.

The decline of the industry hit the towns' fortunes hard – but left behind the fabric of their textile-making past. Today, the towns are at different stages of a journey to reinvent themselves as thriving, successful places.

When the Great Places Commissioners visited the towns in May 2018, they met passionate and enthusiastic communities, proud of their heritage and optimistic about the future.

Empowering communities

Heritage, history and sense of community were high on the agenda for the people we spoke to in both Dewsbury and Hebden Bridge. There was a real desire to see the towns succeed.

Focus on what’s strong, not what’s wrong – lessons from Yorkshire

I really love this place, and I love the people here. The strength of community here is immense.

Dewsbury community workshop

Creating great places is about identifying and unlocking this ambition in people, and giving them the tools, knowledge and confidence to drive positive change in their communities.

Hebden Bridge’s Town Hall is an excellent example of community activism. Calderdale Council transferred the Town Hall to the local community association in 2008 as part of an innovative community asset transfer scheme – the first of its kind in the North of England.

Hebden Bridge Town Hall

At the time, the Town Hall was falling into disrepair, but by 2012, it had been opened as a creative and social space – somewhere that ‘all life passes through’, according to Graham Mynott, Executive Director of the Hebden Bridge Community Association. It now hosts a café, creative and business space, and numerous community groups and activities. It provides vital support for Hebden’s creative businesses – many of which might otherwise have been forced to find premises outside the local area – helping retain the town’s unique character.

Focus on what’s strong, not what’s wrong – lessons from Yorkshire

Every community has potential – people that live in it and believe in it – it’s out there, it’s just about capturing it.

Mark Henderson
Chief Executive of Home Group and Great Places Commissioner

Something similar is going on in Dewsbury, albeit at a much earlier stage. The Friends of Dewsbury Park Mansion was formed by members of the local community in late 2016, and is currently in negotiation with Kirklees Council to transfer the mansion – formerly home to the town’s museum – into a vibrant, welcoming community hub.

Thrive at Connect in Dewsbury is a great example of how housing associations can create a space for the community to come together. Recognising the impact that its local knowledge and resources could make to Dewsbury’s struggling town centre, Connect Housing decided to open up a new office space and community hub in the town in September 2016.

When the Great Places Commissioners visited Thrive, they saw for themselves the contribution it’s making to the local community. As well as a sociable café, the centre offers everything from yoga to craft groups, with all activities either free or with prices kept to a minimum to ensure they are accessible to everyone in the community.

Connect’s Mental Health Services Team also offers a number of support groups and activities through Thrive, ensuring the most vulnerable people in the community can access much-needed support.

Focus on what’s strong, not what’s wrong – lessons from Yorkshire

We don’t just own and manage housing, we provide services and use our assets in the community.

Helen Lennon
Chief Executive of Connect Housing and Great Places Commissioner

And rather than assuming everyone will come to them once they opened the doors of Thrive, Connect chose to employ a number of community networkers whose role is to identify and reach out to people who could benefit from the services, groups and spaces on offer.

Stronger together

What drives organisations like Connect Housing and the Hebden Bridge Community Association is a desire to make a positive difference in a place – but what makes things happen is their willingness to support and engage with likeminded organisations.

We heard about the importance of recognising when and where you’re stronger together when it comes to creating great places – whether that’s understanding what resources you could contribute, or looking to others to complement your own skills and knowledge – successful places rely on strong partnerships.

Calderdale Council, which is the local authority for Hebden Bridge, has an open approach to working in partnership, recognising the contribution that community organisations make to a place. As part of this approach, it operates a small grants scheme, through which it awards up to £3,000 on a one-off basis to community groups that provide services or activities that benefit local people.

Each year, the council gives away around £70,000 in small grants, on the condition that beneficiaries must be community or voluntary groups, and activities must contribute to its ambition to create a thriving, attractive, clean and safe place. From knitting and sports clubs to gardening groups, the grants so far have included funding equipment for a cycling club and water safety training for 50 local families.

Focus on what’s strong, not what’s wrong – lessons from Yorkshire

We need to work together to identify the people that take risks in their communities and have good ideas – by removing barriers and providing small amounts of support.

Sian Rogers
Policy and Project Manager, Calderdale Council

Partnership pays off

While this forward-thinking approach to working in partnership with community groups might seem simple, it isn’t always an easy process. Partnerships take time and work, and require a cultural change that can take years to achieve.

For Calderdale Council, it was the catastrophic 2015 Boxing Day floods in Hebden Bridge that signalled a change in its attitude to working with the community. The day after the flooding began, hundreds of volunteers descended on the Town Hall to support the relief efforts coordinated by the community association. Volunteers served hot meals, offered advice and counselling, and even set up an online database to match those in need with those willing to help. It was an example of the community coming together in the face of adversity, and they did such a good job of it that the council didn’t even have to open its own emergency shelters.

According to Sian Rogers, Policy and Project Manager at Calderdale Council, the council would not have been able to do "anywhere near the quality and effectiveness of the recovery effort" without the support of the Town Hall and the Community Association.

Focus on what’s strong, not what’s wrong – lessons from Yorkshire

I realise how far we’ve come, as well as appreciating just how hard it’s been to get here.

Graham Mynott
Head of the Hebden Bridge Community Association

Over in Dewsbury, Kirklees Council is also embarking on new partnerships in an effort to revive the town centre. Among these is the renovation of Pioneer House, formerly home to the Dewsbury Pioneers’ Industrial Society, which is set to be handed over by the council to Kirklees College next year on a 125-year lease. The ambition is to create Dewsbury Learning Quarter, a state-of-the-art educational facility that the council hopes will attract students and visitors to the town and kick-start a new retail and leisure offer.

Pioneer House, Dewsbury

Celebrating what’s great

At the heart of Dewsbury’s regeneration is the town’s once-thriving market, which was once the ‘jewel in the crown’ of the historic town, and renowned throughout the North. Today’s market is a shadow of its former self, with many punters drawn instead to the vibrant nearby cities of Leeds and Manchester. But the council has a vision to breathe new life into this historic site – it has partnered with Historic England to turn the market back into a bustling ‘world-class’ attraction.

Focus on what’s strong, not what’s wrong – lessons from Yorkshire

There’s still a market out there…we just need to make it happen.

Jonathan Finan
Dewsbury market trader

Dewsbury Market

This is part of the Dewsbury Living Market Town Heritage Action Zone, an initiative that aims to revive and celebrate the town’s historic assets and involve the community in bringing back to life some of Dewsbury’s iconic sites.

At the heart of creating a thriving town once again is a recognition and understanding of what made Dewsbury great in the past, and how these assets can make it great once again.

Focus on what’s strong, not what’s wrong – lessons from Yorkshire

It’s time to turn the conversation around from what’s wrong, to what’s strong.

Chris Chinnock
Head of Business Development, Nurture Development

Housing as part of the puzzle

Some of the residents we spoke to in Dewsbury expressed concern about thriving cities like Leeds, Manchester and Huddersfield drawing investment and attention away from the town.

Kirklees Council is hoping to turn this into an opportunity by capitalising on the town’s proximity and transport links, and developing an affordable mixed housing offer that will appeal to young professionals. This, along with the revival of the town’s retail and education offer, it hopes will help make Dewsbury a more attractive place to live again, drive investment and create new opportunities.

In Hebden Bridge too, there’s a focus on creating affordable housing for young people. Some residents expressed concern about people being priced out of the area with the influx of new arrivals.

Focus on what’s strong, not what’s wrong – lessons from Yorkshire

It’s been quite hard for people born and bred here to be able to afford to stay here, and to get on the property ladder.

Carrie McQuaid
Hebden Bridge Workers' Co-op

Community group Calder Valley Community Land Trust is trying to address the challenge of affordable housing in Hebden Bridge through an innovative ‘community share’ housing scheme. This is housing by the community, for the community – residents are invited to invest anything between £250 and £40,000 in return for shares in the 23-unit scheme, aimed at young people.

Focus on what’s strong, not what’s wrong – lessons from Yorkshire

Suddenly the mills closed, and when the mills closed younger people moved out. We’re losing our young people – we lost them in the 60s and we’re losing them again – the housing isn’t there.

Andrew Bibby
Secretary, Calderdale Community Land Trust

Looking back to look forward

Both towns are focusing on creating successful places that are forward-looking and innovative, but that respect and celebrate their proud history. What we learnt in Yorkshire was the need to start by looking at what a place already has going for it – not just what the challenges it faces are – and look for ways to build on these assets and potential.

It is important that the progress a place makes is inclusive – everyone should be a part of the journey, whether that’s by creating initiatives that involve all parts of the community, providing services for those that need extra support, or building affordable housing for young people.

Creating great places is about unlocking what is already great about a place, and empowering diverse and committed communities to drive positive change.

Focus on what’s strong, not what’s wrong – lessons from Yorkshire

The one blindingly obvious thing is it’s all about people – everybody cares about the place that they live in and they want it to be better for their families and communities.

Mark Henderson
Chief Executive of Home Group and Great Places Commissioner

Watch the video summary of our visit to Yorkshire