At some point in the 1980s the drab North Leeds district of Chapel Allerton became a desirable place to live. Bars, cafes, restaurants and shops sprung up and property prices soared. The hitherto nebulous boundary between Chapel Allerton and neighbouring Chapeltown became a virtual ghetto wall. To the north a well-heeled residential quarter; to the south, the inner-city.
Nevertheless, Chapeltown is nearer Leeds City Centre, has more period architecture, a better park and much more cultural sincerity. It was surely only a matter of time before it followed Chapel Allerton to become the newest new place to live in Leeds. Or was it?
Council Led Rejuvenation
Leeds City Council has poured money in and Chapeltown Road now looks great. The imposing modernity of the Reginald Centre compliments the beautiful period stone facades cleaned and restored with funds from the Chapeltown Heritage Initiative.
There are several stylish new build developments lower down. The shops and businesses look smart, in sharp contrast to the shabby hotchpotch of neighbouring Roundhay Road, and there is even Taste a stylish artisan bakery and café that wouldn’t look out of place in the centre of Harrogate. This looks and feels like a neighbourhood that’s on the up.
According to the organisers' website Chapeltown boasts “Europe’s longest running authentic Caribbean Carnival parade” and Britain’s second biggest carnival. The Chapeltown Development Trust organises regular street markets. And Sharing for Success supports small businesses.
For the connoisseur of period architecture, restoration opportunities abound. Built towards the end of the nineteenth century, the streets around Potternewton Park largely survived the wholescale estate building of the 1950s and are today a treasure trove of terrace, semi and detached properties replete with period features inside and out.
So what has stopped investors and builders from moving in and turning Chapeltown into a Northern Notting Hill?
For a start, stigma. The notorious Hayfield Pub is gone, prostitutes no longer ply their trade openly on Spencer Place, the 1980s riots belong to a different age and crime figures are actually lower than in many Leeds districts.
Nevertheless, for many the neighbourhood is still synonymous with drugs, the sex trade and crime. One reason there are few late night bars and restaurants on Chapeltown Road is that many outsiders don’t feel safe going there after dark. Chapeltown needs redevelopment, it also needs rebranding.
The Benefit Trap
Secondly, rejuvenation is still skin deep. It appears that Leeds City Council’s strategy was to set up a redevelopment pole on Chapeltown Road and hope that private investors would spread redevelopment out into the lateral streets. Good plan! Pity the world economic crisis hit just as the Reginald Centre opened.
There has been some uptake particularly from housing associations. However, in the present economic climate housing associations and private landlords find it far easier to cater for people on benefits.
My last blog “The Housing Benefit Trap”, outlined how letting to people on benefits can pay well and provides no incentives for investors to improve property or the surrounding neighbourhoods. The benefit trap traps individuals in poverty. It also traps neighbourhoods into underdevelopment. In few places is this vicious circle seen more clearly than in Chapeltown.
Good Food and Cycling
Thirdly, Taste is noteworthy because this upmarket English style deli is unique in Chapeltown. There are good Caribbean eateries and a renowned fish and chip shop all of which are community assets. However, a few bars and restaurants like those that abound in Chapel Allerton would go a long way to convincing both investors and would-be residents that Chapeltown is an attractive neighbourhood to live and invest in.
Lastly, the Council’s Core Strategy for Leeds 2014-2130 cites Chapeltown as a key “RIM” area faced with the challenge of “reconnection” to the city. The primary obstacle to such reconnection is Sheepscar interchange. Cyclists and walkers prepared to take their lives in their hands are currently led through Sheepscar on a feeble mesh of intermittent cycle paths and pelican crossings.
Getting Chapeltown reintegrated into the city centre will require some serious thought and, even more serious, infrastructure. Traffic from four arterial roads pile into Sheepscar and cycle lanes are just not viable. In my opinion the only real solution is to go underground. 100m of tunnel would put Chapeltown a safe 10 minute bike ride from Leeds City Centre, the LGI and the Universities and would increase the life expectancy of cyclists commuting in from across North Leeds.
Leeds is not London and Chapeltown is not Notting Hill. The passage from inner-city regeneration zone to flourishing residential neighbourhood is likely to be intermittent, slow and in some parts of Chapeltown it may never happen.
The problems listed above are real, though by no means insurmountable. Perceptions of Chapeltown are changing and on-going attempts by the Council and other agencies to deal with social problems and present a positive image of the neighbourhood are yielding results.
The benefit trap can and will be broken by home owners and investors restoring and rejuvenating properties on a cluster or street-by-street basis. Chapeltown has a lot going for it and there will be progressively more professional first time buyers who see it as an up-and-coming and relatively cheap location from which to commute to the City Centre.
With these professionals will come the restaurants and bars and other trappings of residential bohemia. Whatever the Council does to physically reintegrate Chapeltown with the City Centre will be an improvement. Getting safe cycle lanes into Leeds would be a huge bonus for a neighbourhood whose biggest asset is its proximity to the Centre, the Hospitals and the Universities.
There is a long way to go. However, huge steps have been taken and, with Leeds and the rest of the UK slowly crawling out of recession, momentum is building. There may never be a better time to snap up high potential properties in Chapeltown at good prices. As with any investments, the cream will go to the cats who jump in early.