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 www.belpermills.co.uk) 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.