The Kirkstall Valley campaign was founded on 27 June 1988 when two of the Kirkstall councillors [John Illingworth and Liz Minkin] met a group of local residents who were concerned by rumours of a major new development scheme. Both councillors were originally sworn to secrecy by Mountleigh Northern Developments Ltd, having been briefed "in confidence" a few hours previously. Bernard Farrar (a Kirkstall resident) then produced a leaked colour copy of the Mountleigh proposals that he had been given in a public house. Those present, realising that they were being played off one against another, immediately resolved to establish the Kirkstall Valley Campaign.
The origins of the Mountleigh proposals, which so alarmed the Kirkstall residents, should be sought in the previous year, when the Leeds City Council Labour Leader (George Mudie) re-activated a dormant Council-owned company in September 1987. He was working in close collaboration with a previous Conservative Leader of Leeds City Council (Lord Bellwin) who had become a local government minister under Mrs Thatcher. Prominent Leeds businessmen were quietly invited to join the board, and the company was renamed as the Leeds City Development Company (LCDC) in December 1987.
Although there is no documentary evidence, it seems likely that Councillor Mudie heard through unofficial channels that the Conservative government in London were considering establishing an Urban Development Corporation (UDC) in Leeds. Very few (if any) of the councillors wanted a UDC. Councillor Mudie may have intended to pre-empt Nicholas Ridley, who was Secretary of State for the Environment (SSE) by establishing a Council-controlled company to do the same job. The stated purpose of UDCs was to develop under-used public land, but LCDC would already be in partnership with the private sector, and own many of the potential devlopment sites.
The political control of LCDC was of Byzantine complexity. The trading company, LCDC, was a wholly owned subsidiary of another company, LCDC (1983) Ltd, which in turn was owned by the Council. The leaders of the three main political parties (or their nominees) served on one or other of these company boards. The activities of the subsidiary company were not reported in the Council minutes. The practical effect of this arrangement was that Councillor Mudie made appointments to the LCDC board, and offered about 40 hectares of Council-owned land to the company without any public announcement, and without consulting most of his Labour colleagues.
Among these potential development sites was the Kirkstall Valley. The Council was already seeking derelict land grant from the government to restore the site of the former Kirkstall Power Station, and it appears that large areas of adjacent non-derelict land (that were actually public open space) were added by Council officers to improve the marketability of the site. There was no political discussion of these proposals, and all three Kirkstall councillors were astonished to learn in June 1988 that LCDC had entered into a partnership with Mountleigh Northern Developments Ltd to develop the whole of the Kirkstall Valley.
The Mountleigh scheme was an appalling blunder - a cure far worse than the original disease. Much of the land was allotments, playing fields and public open space. It was an important wildlife haven a short distance from the city centre, with an attractive river side location. The Council were already involved in community projects in the area, and one these (a nature reserve for the European Year of the Environment) had won a national award. It was the last remaining major tract of open space in central Leeds, between some very densely populated areas.
The Mountleigh proposals were obscene: two major shopping malls, 5000 car parking spaces, an office development and a "dinosaur theme park" which soon became the object of public ridicule. The KVC commissioned a survey showing that much of the site was grade one agricultural land, which should have been protected from development under government planning guidance. Fortunately, the scheme made no sense financially. The linear nature of the Kirkstall Valley, subdivided by the railway, the river Aire and the Leeds Liverpool Canal, made it extremely expensive to develop. Huge infrastructure costs would be incurred gaining access to a relatively small area of usable land. The power station legacy included underground voids and cables, and overhead high-voltage lines. Some of the site had been filled but would not support foundation loadings. Although the proposers juggled the pieces on the board for a further 12 months, the joint project between Mountleigh and LCDC was mercifully abandoned in October 1989.
The Mountleigh episode illustrates the dangers of political secrecy. With an open debate the absurdity of the proposals could have been swiftly exposed and the ridiculous enterprise would have never been started. The City Council could, if necessary, have defied the government in Kirkstall with overwhelming political support. The only benefit from the proposals was to unite and activate the local communities in a way that is rarely experienced.
Unfortunately, the Mountleigh scheme was only the beginning of our troubles. We now had a non-elected quango in charge of the area, and various local landowners had seen their opportunity to make some substantial capital gains...