Great expectations

In the next decade Leeds has two big goals - an arena and a better transport system. Rod McPhee asks when they will happen

PERHAPS the biggest disappointment of the last decade in Leeds was the loss of the city's much-needed supertram.

The scheme gained provisional approval in 2001 but was later axed by the Government due to escalating costs which, according to the Department of Transport, could have been anything up to 1 billion.

Following three main routes from the city centre to the north, east and south, the tram would have removed an estimated 4.5m car journeys from the city's roads every year and created something like 6-7,000 jobs.

More importantly, perhaps, it would have put us on a par with other big cities – Manchester, Sheffield and Nottingham – who now boast similar tram schemes.

"There was also an intangiable value to it," said Kieran Preston, chief executive of Metro, the organisation behind the supertram bid. "And that's to just give the sense that we're a big city – that's what transport networks like this do.

"Whenever you see a drama or a TV show featuring a big American or European city they always include some kind of footage of an overhead cable transport system, and why? Because it just gives the ambience of some kind of important metropolis.

"And that matters. It matters to businesses wanting to invest in a city, they want to know what else is in place that can attract consumers, visitors and employees."

Thankfully there is a Plan B.

B for buses, trolleybuses to be exact.

The current scheme being proposed will see hi-tech trolleybuses running along the same routes as supertram would have.

Metro admit it's an inferior scheme to Plan A, but for an initial cost of 270m (far less than supertram) they calculate it will rake in something like 850m for Leeds and the surrounding area.

It would also remove around three million car journeys and create around 4,000 jobs.

Better still, if the Government gives the plans the green light next month, work could start in 2012, with the system up and running by 2015.

"I'm incredibly confident about this," said Kieran. "With supertram we had to make the case, then find the cash, but with this, to put it bluntly, we already have the bulk of the cash ringfenced to us.

"The only hurdle might be if the Government do decide to drastically slash the transport budget but, even if they did that, I don't think this would be one of the schemes scrapped. I sense there's a very real desire at the Department of Transport to see this happen."

But there is an equally important cultural prize up for grabs over the next 10 years – Leeds Arena.

It's a project which has been talked about for decades in the city, but administration after administration have either deemed it too costly or felt at a loss as to how to pay for it.

But, finally, one last push by Leeds City Council saw the plans come off the drawing board and leap closer to actually happening.

This month the Government confirmed the scheme could receive a crucial 9.9m towards funding the construction.

It comes at the end of a long wrangle with politicians in Sheffield who wanted to protect the interests of their own arena and prevent us from getting the cash.

The bid failed and construction work at the Clay Pit Lane site could start over the next 12 months, with a potential opening date of 2012.

It was a project which Leeds economists and music lovers alike had campaigned for through the Noughties, seeing it as a vital element in the mix of facilities which would help bring Leeds on a par with other regional capitals.

Manchester, Sheffield, Liverpool, Newcastle, Nottingham, Birmingham – they all boast large arenas, pulling in the biggest names in music.

For years it was an embarrassing gap in the city's offering.

The world's biggest stars either went across the Pennines or down the M1 and any Loiners wanting to see them perform had to do the same – sucking millions of pounds out of the city and into the pockets of our rivals.

Ian De-Whytel is boss of record shop Crash Records. He's been one of those in the Leeds music community who have been campaigning for a Leeds Arena.

"I've been to Sheffield and Manchester to see everyone from David Bowie to The Killers," he said. "And it's so frustrating to think that we had to travel to see these people rather than have them come to us.

"And it was equally frustrating to think of the money which went out of Leeds because of it. I think one of the best aspects of the new scheme is that it will be built in the city centre.

"I know that if I go to Manchester Arena, for example, I will go across there a little bit early and maybe go for something to eat, or for a drink or maybe even a look round the shops first.

"Now, surely that can only be a good thing, surely it's great to have thousands of people coming to a city every week spending their money here. It makes perfect sense."

Leeds has already benefited from small to medium sized venues in the Noughties.

The construction of Millennium Square, completed in 2000 at a cost of 11m, offers a unique stage for occasional performances – previous names who've performed there include everyone from the Pigeon Detectives to Kaiser Chiefs and The Editors.

And the arrival of the 02 Academy on Cookridge Street in 1998 created a superb medium-sized venue which has attracted everyone from Morrissey to Razorlight and Lily Allen.

But however pleased music lovers were with existing facilities in Leeds, most felt we were still missing out on the final, most important facility of all.

"The arena really is the final piece of the jigsaw," said De-Whytel. "And to be honest with you, we've pressed for this for so long and had that many knockbacks that it's actiually hard to believe it's happening.

"And I really do believe it will happen now. I think that it will be just too embarrassing for all the parties concerned if things get this far and, for whatever reason, it doesn't happen.

"It is massively important for Leeds in the next decade because creating an arena will put the city back on the map again, just as it was put on the map in the 1990s.

"Having big names coming to a venue here means that Leeds gets talked about – it enters the national vocabulary and gains international attention.

"There's something very prestigious about going abroad and seeing people wandering around with band T-shirts on that list their tour dates on the back – and there written among all the world's other biggest cities is the word: Leeds."

Finally, Coun Andrew Carter, the Leeds politician who has spearheaded the drive to secure the arena, added: "The arena is absolutely vital to Leeds over the next decade because it attracts investment, it brings jobs and perhaps more importantly it rakes in something in the region of 20m in spend every single year – now that's significant.

"And as far as I'm concerned there are now no real hurdles in our way – and it couldn't come at a better time either.

"Whether we're in a recession or not it's a very real opportunity for businesses to look at coming to Leeds on the back of what an arena will bring.

"It's actually going to happen – and it's something which the people of Leeds have long-needed and really deserve."

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