Sunny side on the up as family cuts its cloth to meet changing demand

From the 1700s to the late 1900s, West Yorkshire was at the heart of British textile manufacturing.

At one point, hundreds of mills dotted the region’s skyline but today most of these historic buildings have been either demolished or converted into residential space.

Very few still operate as places of employment. One building that does is Sunny Bank Mills in Farsley, midway between Leeds and Bradford. Although textile manufacturing no longer takes place on the site, the old mill buildings are slowly being converted into office space, where more than 70 companies are now based - and YTV filmed scenes for TV series Heartbeat and Emmerdale there.

Property Week catches up with William Gaunt, joint managing director of Sunny Bank alongside his cousin John Gaunt, to find out about the mill’s rich history and their future plans for the site.

How long has the family owned the site?

We’re an old textile manufacturing company and our family has been involved in the site since the mill was built in 1829. Our great-great-great grandfather helped to build the mill with a group of 20 weavers in the village who all clubbed together and they ran it as a co-operative for about 50 years.

Then it was sold to a chap called Edwin Woodhouse and during the First World War my great grandfather bought the mill. He nearly lost it thanks to the crash of 1929 and he had to hand over control to the banks and Inland Revenue for the rest of his life. When he passed away, my grandfather did a deal to get the mill back in 1942 and he ran it with our fathers as a textile company selling cloth to businesses on Savile Row and places like that.

When did you decide to convert the mill into office space?

Textile manufacturing is a declining industry and we had to face up to the economics, so we sold the business in 2008 mainly to make sure we could keep the site. It had always been a place of employment and we had made a good team redundant in 2008, which was traumatic, so John and I decided we would retain the buildings rather than flatten the site and we also wanted it to be a place of employment again because in the noughties lots of mills were being converted into residential.

How did you make the switch from textile manufacturing to property development?

When we sold the textile business in 2008 I’d been weaving cloth for 20 years. I knew how to export and manufacture it, but I didn’t know how to regenerate. It took us two years to understand that process and build a professional team around us.

What sort of tenant mix do you have on site?

Primarily local businesses, but we do have some tenants who are part of international groups and there is a slant towards the creative industries.

What’s the plan going forward?

There’s about 220,000 sq ft of space in a series of distinct buildings and we’ve been tackling one building at a time and spending roughly £1m a year. We’re about a quarter of a way through developing the site out but, because we’re self-funded, the main problem we have is keeping up with demand. I would imagine that a bit over 10 years from now it will all be fully built out.

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