Saturday, December 9, 2023

Opinion: “Salvation for the Belper Mills?”

To judge by the chatter around the plans announced by FI Real Estate Management (FIREM), for Belper’s North and East Mills complex, most people are mightily relieved, and I’m one of them. At last! These landmark mills have been deteriorating steadily for years, the East Mill is standing empty but for pigeons and peregrines, and the complex – though listed – was uneasily in Historic England’s “Heritage at risk” category.

It’s fingers-crossed time because this plausible-looking project is only the start of a long process. It has really got to happen. The owners, one of those diversified property concerns of which FIREM is a part, have previously come in for a lot of stick for letting the mills slide. Things were looking very bad in 2016. Since then there has clearly been a lot of behind-the-scenes activity.

The proposals (see them at make sense: it is to be a mixed-use business, residential, retail and (because of the continuing presence of the North Mill Museum), cultural quarter. The exact mix will doubtless be subject to negotiation – the imminent planning application promised is outline only. There is a need for proper business space as is now proving so successful up at Cromford Mills. There is a need for good and affordable apartments, but at present all the 117 flats planned for East Mill are of the one-and-two bed variety. Personally I’d like to see a greater mix. Why not a few larger homes in the mix, perhaps on two levels, for families?

Yes, the smaller Grade 1 listed North Mill is the historically important one but for me it is the big, brash, Accrington-red brick Edwardian East Mill (Grade II listed) that holds the key. That’s the landmark you see from afar, setting up that contrast of industry in a rural setting so important to the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site.  I find it fascinating – a confident proto-modernist building with the merest touch of Art Nouveau to it. When I first visited Belper over a decade ago and looked down on it from up on the valley side, it gave the town an exotic, purposeful  character. It saddened me to see it and the North Mill decay in the following years.

The architects, DLA Design, aren’t especially well known but seem to have studied and understood the place, with local guidance. The atrium they propose in the East Mill is necessary to bring light to the flats. The factory’s zig-zag north lights are an important part of the original design, otherwise roof gardens up there could have been quite something.  Better access to the River Gardens is a plus. Generally, the plans for the whole complex look achievable and architecturally appropriate. That’s good, because apart from the heritage need to save the mills, Belper needs more happening at the north end of Bridge Street, more people living, working and visiting there, to balance the activity of the town.  I’m hoping very hard that this works.

By Hugh Pearman

Hugh Pearman, architecture critic based in London and Belper, is editor of the RIBA Journal.

Claire Meese


6 thoughts on “Opinion: “Salvation for the Belper Mills?”

  • Sue MacFarlane

    Thanks for this Hugh. I visited the exhibition a couple of weeks ago and thought it all looked great, but it’s good to have that confirmed by someone who knows about these things in a professional capacity. It feels good to have a development proposal for Belper that we can all get behind and support, instead of the previous ones that have involved digging up green fields.

  • Frank Smith

    Sadly this proposal does little or nothing for Belper it is the answer to the question “What can we do to make most money with minimum risk and no outcry from the locals?”.

    When I was stood in the exhibition having a discussion with the architect about the apartments a lady said “I’d love one of the one bedroom apartments”. I turned and asked her the question “Can you afford well over £200,000 for the privilege?”. The answer was clear from the expression on her face and the architect kept very quiet. My suspicion is I got the price way lower than they plan, I should have been asking about over £300,000 but worse add on a service charge of several £1000 a year and you start to understand the situation and to make things worse each apartment comes with one car space. So how may cars are going to be parked in the streets around the mills?

    The tourist attraction is a viewing platform on one corner of the East Mill with views to the south and west of the mill complex. So how many people are going to pay to go up and have a look at a cost of, guess £5 a head, do the calculation. Now subtract twice the cost of employing two people to run it all year. My suspicion it will never be built, or it will never open or it will end up run by the North Mill Trust who are already not self funding (Sorry).

    Now go count the empty shops in Belper. My final questions, does Belper need the shopping centre to be even more fragmented and how long before the rents for the upgraded buildings go up so far that the existing tenants are driven out?

    Don’t get me wrong if this is the only offer in town I agree it is better then the building being left to rot but I’m sure we can do better.

  • Simon Riddington

    I would also refer you to Derek Lathams’ letter to The Derby Telegraph published 8th June.
    Personally I feel we have a long way to go achieve a solution to the saving of our landmark mills.

  • Joe ashton

    Not seen the proposed development plans yet but hope it includes the renovation and development of the historic Tea Rooms in the beautiful River Gardens.

  • Hugh Pearman

    Can’t find Derek’s letter online. Can you give a link to it?

  • Simon Riddington

    Sorry, I cant find it either, I read it in the printed version. Suggest you contact:
    to see if they can help.

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