Capital of Culture bid has brought Leeds together, says Karen Sewell

Culture has a major role to play in attracting jobs and investment to Leeds, says Karen Sewell. She met Deputy Business Editor Greg Wright.

Monday, 15th January 2018, 1:18 pm
Updated Monday, 15th January 2018, 1:20 pm
Date: 8th January 2018. Picture James Hardisty. Karen Sewell, EMEIA general counsel and UK head of legal at WSP.

THE hum-drum job of collecting signatures is often delegated to a young lawyer.

It’s a task that may not set the pulse racing, but it’s still an essential part of any transaction. Karen Sewell has fond memories of the day a trip to get a signature was far from drudgery.

“Fancy flying to Italy?” her boss said. “We need to collect Tom Ford’s signature.”

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Date: 8th January 2018. Picture James Hardisty. Karen Sewell, EMEIA general counsel and UK head of legal at WSP.

Yes, it was THAT Tom Ford; the fashion designer, film director, screenwriter and former creative director of Gucci.

Ms Sewell was sent to a completion meeting involving Gucci where Mr Ford was obliged to sign on the dotted line.

“It was not the worst errand I have ever been sent on,’’ she said. “They also very kindly gave me a Gucci handbag at the end of that transaction.”

Perhaps it was a portent of things to come. Years later, Ms Sewell finds herself at the heart of a body that has brought the creative and business communities together to promote Leeds as a great place to live and work. As the business spokesman for the Leeds 2023 European Capital of Culture bid, Ms Sewell has witnessed the powerful ties that exist between the arts and corporate world.

Date: 8th January 2018. Picture James Hardisty. Karen Sewell, EMEIA general counsel and UK head of legal at WSP.

The momentum behind this campaign is strong enough to survive what could have been a mortal blow. On November 23 last year, a few days before bidding cities were due to go to shortlisting interviews in London, the director general in the European Commission’s Education and Culture Department wrote to the Government stating that “the participation of the United Kingdom in the European Capital of Culture action will not be possible”.

The repercussions of Brexit had spread to the cultural world. An outcry followed. While talks are ongoing, Leeds is planning for the likelihood that it won’t be able to participate in the competition. The team behind the bid is, however, determined to celebrate the city’s communities and cultural diversity in its own way.

Ms Sewell said: “My hope is that we really capitalise on all these good things that we’ve done in preparation for submitting our bid. We’ve really built the brand of Leeds. We’ve seen it being written about more in the national press. We’re really seeing that pride in Leeds as a city growing. For me, it’s important that we do something anyway.

“It may be something we do through a national competition or something we in Leeds as a city decide to just do for ourselves.

“The business community in Leeds were enthusiastic and willing to get involved to back the bid. They are keen to see culture at the forefront of driving our city forward as a place to live, work and study.

“I was delighted to discover we were pushing at an open door when it comes to getting businesses in the city behind a project like this.. With a cultural project not really having one identity is a massive strength. It’s that breadth and diversity of cultural offerings that makes Leeds stand out.”

Ms Sewell joined engineering professional services consulting firm WSP from law firm Addleshaw Goddard where she was a partner in the firm’s finance and projects division. She trained at Linklaters, studied at Oxford University, and also worked for US firm Gibson Dunn in London and New York.

She has represented banks, financial institutions and corporate borrowers in relation to all aspects of financing transactions. Based in Leeds and London, she sits on the UK’s executive leadership team and reports to Mark Naysmith, the UK chief executive.

It may not be a household name, but WSP has been involved in many high profile projects including the Shard, Crossrail and, the Bullring shopping centre in Birmingham. WSP has also been appointed to deliver railway systems designs and engineering for HS2 Phase 2, the high speed rail network which is planned to connect London to the Midlands and Yorkshire.

She said: “It’s hard to ignore the HS2 project because of its significance to the country, but there are other hugely important projects that are being done by WSP with a heritage angle, and people from Yorkshire are contributing to them.

“That includes the Houses of Parliament and Buckingham Palace re-surfacing and the infrastructure and traffic systems around Stonehenge. Any central aspect to a project is being managed largely in Leeds. The engineers work, not only nationally, but globally to bring in all that international expertise. It’s one of the reasons WSP is successful at winning these types of projects.”

Closer to home, WSP is involved in the £300m transformation of Kirkstall Forge in Leeds into a thriving mixed-use community. The company is also taking the lead on a study that will create a business case for an innovation corridor in the Sheffield City Region. The corridor could reduce congestion and improve connections between Sheffield and Rotherham to maximise the potential for growth of a new advanced manufacturing innovation district.

In recent years, many sectors have hired large numbers of EU nationals because of skills shortages in the UK. There have been concerns that there could be problems if the flow of talented staff from the EU to the UK is halted after Brexit.

“When issues such as Brexit arrive good businesses adapt and find where the opportunities will be in post-Brexit Britain,’’ said Ms Sewell. “At the moment there’s a lot of uncertainty around Brexit and one of the things that is difficult for businesses is reassuring their workforces, especially those from the EU member states.

“So we’re doing a lot of work to try and help our EU workforce to make sure they have as much information as they can, and also to reassure them, at every point, that they are important to us.”