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Leeds and levelling up: economy, infrastructure and the 'kind city'

Above: the eastern approaches to Leeds city centre (courtesy Leeds City Council)

Our first panel discussion at our levelling up in Leeds invited the Leader of Leeds City Council, Cllr James Lewis, to give his vision for the future of the city, Liz Hunter, Head of Policy at the West Yorkshire Combined Authority to describe the transport needs of a growing region, Peter Jenkins, Head of Transport at BDP to comment on how station assets can be used for a wider cultural and social offer and DLA Piper Partner, Andrew Clarke to point out the value of the global law firm's £85 million investment in the city's office sector.

Cllr James Lewis, suggested investment is now needed to keep the projects alive that received levelling up funding in the 1990's:

'Leeds is a huge city and Leeds City Council is the UK's second biggest council outside London and my area has been levelled up once already in the 1990's. Twenty years on, a lot of it has thrived, but the big capital projects we invested in are not so successful and the money is not there to keep those going.

'The old industrial areas have developed because we have banged on about transport investment. HS2 was not just about connections to other cities in the UK, but creating extra land around the main station and more opportunities to expand the local train offer. There are serious issues around connecting east to west in the region. Bradford for example, is not connected to Leeds at all.

'In terms of economic growth, there is a strong innovation network here and we are good at supporting each other. There is a broad based economy through tech and there are twice as many advanced manufacturing companies here as anywhere. We have been working on our climate commission involving both public and private sectors and we have seen development around the NHS in Leeds. We have an amazing talent pool and more STEM students than anywhere outside London. We should collaborate with other cities such as Manchester, because it is important for both of us to succeed. The idea of the 'kind city' does work with competition. Young businesses feel they have support from large institutions here.'

Above: Leeds City Square in May 2022 with the restored and expanded Majestic, now home to broadcaster Channel 4, on left

On connectivity, Liz Hunter from the Yorkshire Combined Authority stated that the city would be a place of healthy transport, cycling and walking in the future:

'We are working on a mass transit system for Leeds - supporting connectivity - and there are business cases around it, but it is a journey of funding with the city council - and that needs to come to the table.

'Leeds has been a 'motorway city' and we can still see the impact of that on the city centre. For the last few years the council has been working on making Leeds a city where you don't need a car, providing a more attractive bus offer and attractive places where you can walk round - a place where you can live and work.

'We are definitely stronger when we work together and on improving transport for the north. It has been disappointing about the downgrading of the ambitions of the Northern Powerhouse Network connectivity across the North, but now investment needs to be maximised and studies are being undertaken to improve connectivity and making the most of HS2 coming to Leeds in the future.'

Improving Leeds Station itself was a topic taken forward in the conversation by BDP's Head of Transport, Peter Jenkins:

'The priority for Network Rail is to get people moving through stations but you need to get the spin off benefits from station development. Currently Leeds Station is underwhelming considering how many passengers pass through it. The character of the buildings is a let down and it is not an impressive landmark for the city. It is also important what happens under buildings and the dark arches below Leeds Station are an astonishing opportunity perhaps for cultural venues like a concert hall.'

Above: offices (Platform) above Leeds city railway station, with passenger entrance, and Queen's Hotel on right

Trevor Mitchell, Head of Region for Historic England commented from the audience about the important re-use of heritage buildings such as the dark arches below the station, perhaps for SME's rather than just supermarkets, and Peter Jenkins agreed but warned that these uses are only often thought of after buildings are converted and finished, and there needs to be some advanced thinking:

'Post pandemic as we return to the cities, studies have shown a peak in numbers using Leeds Station on a Saturday, greater than any other week day, so somewhere for passengers to go and enjoy the station buildings such as the dark arches is a must.

'On the mobility agenda, there is a desire for passengers to make streamlined journeys, building in services at stations, such as doctors appointments, which can be on offer at suburban stations, and this stops commuters jumping into there cars to drive to the town centre, two miles away. Local authorities could use this thought process to reduce dependence on the car and make public transport more inviting again.'

Above: CGI of proposed DLA Piper offices in central Leeds (MRP)

Andrew Clarke, Partner at DLA Piper, who is leading the £85 million development of new offices for his firm, agreed that a mass transit system in the city would be very welcome. The new DLA Piper offices are very well located next to Leeds Station and Andrew thinks this will help with connectivity:

'At DLA Piper, we never believed the office was dead, even through the pandemic and we have large numbers of people coming back in. The new offices do need to be more agile and offer greater collaborative spaces for working. The super fast broadband is essential and on the sustainability front, we will be the only office in Leeds to be powered entirely by electric.

'We need transport to be as easy as possible for staff and we have considered everything from e-scooter mobility to EV charging facilities. We will run all our of DLA Piper's global IT from here and the city is very important for the firm. We have a 200 year history of working within Leeds and there is a moral imperative to invest here. Staff numbers are rising from 700 to 800 when the new offices open and they will really enjoy the state-of-the-art facilities including a roof garden that will be on offer.'

Below: the opening panel at Future Cities Forum in Leeds, with (from left) Cllr James Lewis of Leeds City Council, Andrew Clarke of DLA Piper, Heather Fearfield of Future Cities Forum, Peter Jenkins of BDP, and Liz Hunter of the West Yorkshire Combined Authority


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