Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies by Chris Nickson

This month Chris Nickson reminds us that Leeds was very nearly a motorway city where the car would have been king and much of Leeds’ architectural gems reduced to rubble in the name of progress. Have we got it right? You decide.

motorway cityIt’s perhaps hard to believe from this distance, but a few decades ago Leeds advertised itself hopefully as the ‘Motorway City of the Seventies.’ The M1, the M62, the Inner Ring Road would mean traffic flowed freely to, from and around the city.

There were big plans for pedestrian walkways up in the sky, leaving the road clear for traffic. And by traffic, people meant private cars. When it was first announced it seemed like an ambitious science fiction dream, but one that fitted well with the brutalist architecture of the times. A city was meant to be functional, not attractive. We were all going to be travelling on four wheels (unless we absolutely had to walk after parking). We were going to have money and leisure time. The future was so bright we were going to have to wear shades.

In preparation, Leeds tore down many of its old buildings. History vanished right before our eyes. In some cases, like all the back-to-back slums close to the city centre, that was a good thing, on balance, although longstanding communities were broken apart. In others, it was inexcusable. But out of that came the Merrion Centre, one of the first shopping centres in Britain. Good? Bad? You decide. But back then it was new, and new was what planners wanted.

But in the end Leeds never quite managed the dream of being the Motorway City of the Seventies. That aspiration from the early Sixties didn’t manage to get a choke hold. What happened?

In part, we became wiser. Ideas changed. The Civic Amenities Act put preserving old buildings back on the agenda (and saved us losing the Corn Exchange to build a dual carriageway. And in the Seventies, following the Clean Air Acts of the Fifties and Sixties, we could breathe for the first time. We cleaned the soot off our remaining Victorian buildings and realised we had a heritage, and a beautiful one, at that. We discovered that elusive quality, civic pride. A bit late perhaps, but better late than never.

That’s not all of it, of course. New fashions in urban planning took hold, undoubtedly the biggest factor. Briggate and Commercial Street were pedestrianized, the first move away from the car. We kept a pretty good bus system.

There’s still plenty of new building, of course, that wonderful saw of urban regeneration. And with the demolition of the Yorkshire Post building (for which Leeds knocked down one of its oldest mills, Bean Ing) we’re getting rid of more of the 1960s monstrosities. Good riddance, although we might need a few decades to determine whether we’ve really replaced them with anything better.

At least that Motorway City dream floated away before Leeds became a network of skywalks. We can still walk on the pavements, still cycle (at your own risk) and feel the sun and rain on our faces. Sit outside a café with a coffee and pretend we’re Continental. Yes, we’ve given away half of Eastgate for ‘aspirational retailing’ but we are possibly being cannier about much of the rest. Maybe. Hopefully.


Chris Nickson

Chris Nickson

Chris Nickson is a Leeds novelist and music journalist. His Richard Nottingham series of mystery novels is set in Leeds in the 1730s.

Gods of Gold, a mystery set against the backdrop of the 1890 gas strike in Leeds and the first in his new Victorian series, was published in August 2014.

Fiona Gell

Fiona is a lifelong reading enthusiast and book lover. Her career started as a bookseller and has never really veered away from the written and spoken word. It was a dream for her to be a founder member of The Leeds Big Bookend and the Northern Short Story Festival. She continues to be its Director.

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