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Part 1 – Why grow?

For every £3 collected in all taxes in Leeds, government of all levels spends £4 [1]. We are a richer and more productive city than many of our close neighbours but we are not yet successful enough to pay our own bills.

If we want to pay our own way and be in a strong position to take more decisions ourselves about what we do then we need to raise taxes, cut spending, and grow our economy.

Leeds’ financial plan explains how it is doing all three things. It is increasing council tax by 3.99% this year, including a 2% increase ring-fenced for adult social care. It is cutting £31m of spending on top of significant cuts in previous years. And it is helping to secure investment of £932m over the next three years to grow the economy of Leeds.

But our city is not standing still. People are living longer and families today are smaller than they used to be. In the future, unless we grow as a city, there will be fewer working-age people to pay for the pensions and healthcare that a larger number of old people will be entitled to.

By 2030 there will be 50% more people aged over 75 living in Leeds. There will be about 25% more people aged under 16 too. That means that tax rises will need to continue, that spending cuts will need to deepen, or that we will have to grow the economy of our city even more.

Why I choose growth

To pay for the services that we enjoy today and that we want for the future I think that the easiest way forward is to grow. Well-planned and sustainable growth, but growth all the same.

Schemes like the Kirkstall Forge redevelopment, Trinity shopping centre, and Victoria Gate provide the city with new shops, offices, and homes. They are already delivering more taxes via business rates to Leeds City Council to fund services.

There are many more plans for growth in Leeds such as the East Leeds extension, the South Bank redevelopment, a new village at Thorp Arch, and much more. Details are in places like the Leeds strategic plan and many are already under consultation.

I think that the more we grow the less we’ll need to raise taxes and the less we’ll need to cut spending.

Growing pains

But growth never comes without growing pains and there are many people in Leeds who think that we need to grow less, or that we need to grow in a different way. Many people think that the Kirkstall Bridge Shopping Park has caused unacceptable congestion in West Leeds. Others think it should never have been built given the flood risk.

There are local campaigns against housing development in most parts of outer Leeds. People are worried about losing parks, countryside, and fields. They are worried about crowded schools, GP surgeries, and roads.

There are further debates about what type of growth we want: should we focus more on manufacturing? Or creative industries? Or financial services? Or favour whoever can pay the highest rent?

Should we focus on growth in the city-centre or in the suburbs? Should we give individual citizens and builders more or less power to decide what we allow to be built?

These are all important questions and I’ll share my thoughts and the data I used to form them in future blogs.

Tom Forth

Founder at imactivate
Head of technical challenges at ODI Leeds

[1] http://www.centreforcities.org/reader/mapping-britains-public-finances/a-public-expenditure-map-of-britain/

Part 2 – Where to grow?

In the last two decades Leeds has grown.

While fewer people live in some outer wards, many more live in central wards. Nowhere is this clearer than in City & Hunslet ward where the population has more than doubled in recent decades.

Today much more of Leeds is a busy, exciting, and bustling place than it was when I was a kid. And because growth has focused on ex-industrial sites in the city-centre, 87% of new homes built in Leeds since 2000 have been on brownfield sites.

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But growth hasn’t been evenly spread. While central flats have shot up the population in outer wards has remained more or less the same. And as families have grown up and children have left home the number of people living in places Cross Gates, Adel, Otley, and Yeadon has declined.

Should we worry that growth isn’t being evenly spread? Or celebrate that places that don’t want to grow more slowly have been able to choose that?

Where to grow next?

I think that Leeds should continue to grow in the coming decades. The council agrees. We already know where the next 15,000 homes will be built.

The city-centre will again be a focus. Brownfield sites will again host most of the new homes. — this time 73%. But there will also be expansion onto greenfield sites, especially in South and East Leeds. This sounds reasonable to me.

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So far in order to support the current focus on central growth there’s been a new park at Sovereign Square and another opposite the Tetley, providing greenspace that people said they wanted. The Printworks Campus of Leeds City College, Leeds University Technical College, Leeds College of Building Hunslet campus and the new Ruth Gorse academy are providing education in the city-centre. And the new Southern entrance to Leeds station has improved access to visitors by train.

But what else should we be doing? Some people argue that the city council focuses too much on investment in the city centre, but if that is the only place that is growing then that feels right to me.

Why I think we need to build on some greenbelt land

If people want investment to be more widely spread then  Leeds should be looking to grow in more places. City-centre living is great for some people, but there’s only so many families who’ll want to live in central flats.

We should be expanding schools in outer areas, promoting job creation and growth, and expanding Leeds by building more homes and workplaces.

Many families want a garden, a space to park a car, and a bit more distance between them and the main road, a noisy bar, or maybe even their neighbours. You only have to look at house prices to see that many people want to live in the suburbs. But at the moment we don’t build enough homes for them to be able to afford it.

I’m not suggesting an unplanned free-for-all. All development in Leeds should be properly planned, as it is today. But by expanding our city a bit we can provide more people with the type of family homes they want. We can save some brownfield sites in the city centre for industrial use, parks, shops, cafes, pubs, and things other than homes. And we can help to pay our way within the UK and do our bit to safeguard the services that we enjoy today.

Tom Forth

Founder at imactivate
Head of technical challenges at ODI Leeds

 

 

Part 3 – Inclusive growth

“For Leeds, good growth means more jobs and homes; improved skills and educational attainment for all; helping people out of financial hardship and into work; and increased inward investment” said Leeds City Council in 2015. I often wonder if the council and our city is serious about that ambition. And I wonder how the city is doing.

Good signs

Leeds has fewer really poor areas than similar cities like Birmingham and Manchester. It has the lowest rate of homeslessness of any core city, and it has built homes at a rate needed to keep them affordable better than other major cities.

 

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These are all good things for inclusive growth and the good news gets better. In the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s inclusive growth monitor report Leeds LEP finished equal with Sheffield and ahead of Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle, Liverpool, and London for economic inclusion.

Bad signs

But whatever comparative success Leeds has had on economic inclusion is not an excuse to stop trying to improve. Especially because in some areas Leeds does poorly.

Leeds does better than most cities at attracting and retaining highly-trained people. But it does badly at educating too many of its own young people. Children in Leeds and Bradford do worse at school than children in most of England’s major cities. We must improve that.

 

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I also think that Leeds and its regions suffer from unacceptably poor transport. The city may attract investment and create jobs but if people cannot get to them then they are excluded from success in the most obvious way possible.

It is an ominous sign that between 2001 and 2011, as Leeds grew, the population of its travel to work area fell. We can’t be sure why, but it seems likely that poor public transport, and increasing congestion played a key role.

Prosperity can power inclusion if we get the basics right

Leeds is already doing a lot of the right things to help create the jobs that people need to succeed. The plan is working. More and better jobs are being created. But it’s clear to me that we can do better at making sure everyone in the city has a great chance of getting them.

That means improving education in the city. Investments like the Ruth Gorse Academy, The Printworks Campus of Leeds City College, Leeds University Technical College, and Leeds College of Building Hunslet campus are part of that. We can do even better.

It also means improving transport within Leeds and between Leeds and its close neighbours. After decades of setbacks, Leeds has real challenges in this area. The current transport plan might be a step in the right direction, but I think we need to do much better in the future.

 

Tom Forth

Founder at imactivate
Head of technical challenges at ODI Leeds

 

Part 4 – What to focus on?

Leeds has many strengths as a city. It also has weaknesses. With limited resources, we will sometimes need to choose between building on our strengths and catching up with other places.

Building the First Direct Arena was an example of where catching up was the right decision. Manchester, Sheffield, and Doncaster had arenas already but they are too far away. The arena in central Leeds has expanded the city centre in a new direction and created hundreds of jobs.

The Arena has been a great success but most of the time we’d be better to play to our strengths. That means not doing some things that might seem sensible.

For example, Manchester has the BBC and the North’s most important airport. We should make sure that we are well-connected to Manchester rather than trying to copy these things. York has a hugely important tourism industry. We should add to their offer not replicate it. Liverpool and Hull operate important and growing docks. We should trade via them.

What I am describing is the same as the theory behind the Northern Powerhouse. It is a good idea and Leeds should take a lead in directing the brand’s future. We will achieve more if focus on our strengths and make the most of them; and share with our neighbours where we are weaker.

Playing to our strengths – skilled, creative, digital, financial, legal
So what are Leeds’ strengths?

The first is skills. Leeds’ universities, colleges, and businesses have done a good job of attracting, training, and retaining highly-skilled people. We must keep this strength while improving the opportunities for young people in Leeds.

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A skilled and creative workforce creates and attracts skilled and creative jobs. Unsurprisingly, Leeds has a higher percentage of workers in the creative industries than most similar cities.

The software & digital industries are a particular strength with companies like SkyBet, BJSS, TPP, Ten10, and hundreds more succeeding in Leeds.

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Of course, creative industries are only a part of the economy. Leeds has thousands of successful business in all sectors and is a national hub for financial services, legal services, and the supermarket industry. It retains a large, varied, and highly-skilled manufacturing industry too. But I’m not convinced that Leeds should focus on boosting and of these sectors in particular.

Basics first, but maybe creativity too.

The government of Leeds should mostly leave choices about the city’s focus to the people who live and work here. If people start businesses of a certain type and succeed, then that field will succeed. We should let it.

Instead, government should mostly focus on things that help all people and all businesses; better education, better transport both within the city and to neighbouring places, homes and workplaces, social care, children’s services, and parks. But I think there might be an exception.

I’m tempted by the argument that a city can nurture its creative industries and its attractiveness to visitors and residents more directly. Small creative businesses sometimes grow to become big business. But even if they stay small or stop trading they often provide ideas and talent that larger companies can hire or collaborate with. If they make an especially valuable contribution to the city then shouldn’t the city help them?

Companies that help small businesses already exist. LCVS provide space for small creative industries on long rents and with smaller down-payments. Co-working spaces like East Street Arts, FutureLabs, and Duke Studios do similar things. If the interventions are easy, then Leeds should help these organisations to thrive and grow. It might think about extending the approach further into areas like shopping too.

In continuing its Capital of Culture 2023 bid, and through its Southbank consultation, Leeds is doing a lot to promote small creative businesses and the city’s cultural sector. The city has a lot to offer including the UK’s oldest Caribbean Carnival, Leeds United, The Brudenell Social Club, and Headingley stadiums. Leeds is right to talk itself up, increase its visibility to the word, and use that to encourage growth. But mostly it should focus on improving buses and schools – and making sure it plans enough homes and workplaces.

 

Tom Forth

Founder at imactivate
Head of technical challenges at ODI Leeds

 

Part 5 – What are our limits?

Aiming high is great but we need to be realistic so that we can focus our efforts.

Leeds has a large growth deal, but it does not have a devolution deal. That gives us a quieter voice than cities that will soon have Mayors like Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol, and Liverpool. It gives us a quieter voice than London, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales too.

But a quiet voice doesn’t mean that we should stay silent. Instead we should use Manchester’s national and global visibility to secure the investment we need. We should aim to strengthen and support our neighbour’s voice. We must recognise that the success of both of our cities depends on the other.

Another limit to Leeds’ ambition is its brand. We aren’t globally known in the way that Liverpool, Manchester, or Scotland are. But Leeds is the largest city in Yorkshire — and that brand is becoming more widely known internationally. So Leeds should continue to work with York, Hull, the whole of Yorkshire, and the whole country on making ourselves visible to the world.

Politics defines our limits

The Leeds economy is one of the strongest big-city economies in the UK, but it is small. We may want to stay small but we must accept that that inherently limits what we can achieve.

There are significant restrictions on what Leeds can achieve within the UK. As we exit the EU I think that those restrictions will increase. If Leeds continues as it is we will have more and more of our decisions taken for us in London. To date that has been our choice. We may continue to make that choice, but I think we would be better off taking another one.

While Leeds itself is not as large as Manchester or Birmingham, the wider region including Bradford, Wakefield, Halifax, Huddersfield, and York, can be if it chooses to work together. If we are willing to take more decisions with our closest neighbours in West Yorkshire and then yet more decisions together with Manchester, Liverpool, and Sheffield we can achieve more of the improvements I propose in these blogs. If we chose to stay small we will able to achieve less.

Ultimately though, this is a political choice, not an economic one. And I am not a politician.

 

Tom Forth

Founder at imactivate
Head of technical challenges at ODI Leeds

 

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