Hilary Benn - Member of Parliament for Leeds Central
Exactly a year ago, in my column for South Leeds Life, I reflected on how the world had changed in ways that could scarcely have been imagined four weeks earlier.
Twelve months on, who would have imagined that we would have seen 126,000 people lose their lives, three lockdowns, businesses going bankrupt while others are hanging on by the skin of their teeth, and the sheer impact on people’s health and mental wellbeing.
This anniversary of the first lockdown is indeed a moment to remember all those we have lost, their families who still grieve for them and the change the virus has brought to all of our lives. There will be very important lessons to learn when the inevitable inquiry begins, but given rising infections on the continent of Europe and what is likely to be the ever-present threat of new variations of the virus, this isn’t over yet. So, as the magnificent NHS vaccination programme helps to protect us and those we love and as we yearn to return to normal – meeting family and friends and hugging grandchildren again – we have to recognise that it’s going to be a different kind of normal.
The virus has also exposed an uncomfortable truth about the nature of our society. We have seen how it has affected different groups in different ways as existing inequalities have been sharply exposed. Surely, we don’t want to go back to that kind of normal?
But it’s also important to remember that this crisis has brought out the best in our society; the kindness, selflessness and care for others that is rooted in our communities and the efforts of all those who have worked so hard to look after us. We thank you from the bottom of our hearts.
The awful death of Sarah Everard provoked national revulsion and enormous sympathy for her family and friends who grieve terribly for her loss. It has also prompted an outpouring of stories from women up and down the country about how, so often, they feel unsafe when they are out and about. They rightly ask ‘what are we going to do about this?’ There’s certainly a case for new offences so that men who behave in an unacceptable way face the consequences, although given the huge delays in the court system, they won’t necessarily do any good if cases only come to court years later, by which time memories have faded or witnesses have just given up. It’s a change in culture that’s really required.
A couple of Saturdays ago I went for a long walk around Holbeck. My life as an MP usually involves lots of rushing about by car to get from one place to another, but there is nothing like walking to help you to see things both close up and in a different light. For example, I stopped and had a good look at Temple Works – the extraordinary Grade 1 19th century building that was a flax mill and looks like an Egyptian temple. At the time it was constructed by the great Leeds industrialist John Marshall, it was the largest room in the world, had the world’s first hydraulic lift and sheep grazed on the roof among the famous domed skylights. This wasn’t just a folly. The roof was covered in grass which was needed to bring moisture into the factory below and maintain the right temperature to prevent the linen thread from drying out and breaking.
The building has long been in a poor state and a section of it collapsed a few years ago. It was bought in 2018 by CEG which has set out ambitious plans for its restoration, with the intention of the British Library occupying it as its northern home. This is a really exciting project that will bring this remarkable piece of Holbeck history back into use, and having had the opportunity some years ago to glimpse inside the building I can tell you that everyone is in for a treat.
First published in the April 2021 edition of South Leeds Life, available online here https://southleedslife.com/newspaper/recent-issues-of-our-newspaper/