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.
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.
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.
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 any of these sectors in particular.
I think that 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 world, 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.