Leeds needs to make room for a diverse and skilled next generation

Many people will have heard about the cancellation of Leeds' bid to be 2023 Capital Culture.

But despite this news the council’s recent commitment to continue to a year celebrating our city’s culture is a bold and timely decision that says our city believes in itself and is ready to share that with the rest of the world.

But it’s also a chance to reflect and create something that’s led entirely by the city’s agenda without taking part in a competition where obviously rules will apply.

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On reflection for some us growing up here, the city’s ambitions and cultural output in the past let its young down.

We now have a population of getting towards a million people and have a huge amount of potential.

For some reason collectively we often fail to shout about how much good stuff there is going on.

Both of us grew up in east Leeds, it certainly did not scream at you that Leeds was a place where you had the potential to develop an international career.

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We are both now asking ourselves what’s next? What can we do? What have we learnt and are we now part of the problem?

Fast forward to the early 2000s and the music scene is starting to throw up bands that are challenging that narrative; Everything is brilliant in Leeds ran the Kaiser Chiefs’ slogan, perhaps a few years before it actually was.

In recent times the city has developed at pace.

The number of creative and cultural spaces has increased dramatically.

The capability of the city to provide space and resources for people to express themselves has gone from strength to strength.

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At the same time, that bettering of standards for many has not been matched throughout the city.

We are not, yet, an inclusive city.

In fact, as the shopping and arts have thrived, the city centre, at times and in places, looks less like a place for all and more and more like a place for those who have the spending power to consume.

Our arts likewise are also at times not a reflection of the city’s demographics, we also are in danger of being part of the problem.

To truly produce great work and deliver great programmes we need to work harder to challenge the makeup of our organisations and shout loudly into all our neighbourhoods that Leeds is the place for you to develop an international career despite where you live or your background because opportunities are here for you.

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This is not a criticism of any of those people that have come to Leeds, as students or for work, that have added a great deal, because without them we would not be developing the critical mass and diversity of talent that is integral to a city’s growth.

But Leeds at times does not seem to include those from its poorer areas, that it does not seem to link up well with them is a problem.

We would go as far as to say the two are often linked; is there a cultural divide hindering us from reaching the potential of this great city?

In summary, recent years have seen much discussion about the need for an inclusive city.

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This is important for two reasons and should satisfy people across the political spectrum.

Firstly, morally a city is a single unit, a gathering of people and as such the spoils of success should be shared and nobody should feel they are not welcome to enjoy the better things in the area in which they live.

Secondly, for potentially hundreds of thousands of people to feel cut off from their own city’s culture, to not be able to support their own art, films, music, food and drink is an economic problem.

By galvanising the city further, we increase the chances that our citizens support our citizens’ work.

Leeds is at a turning point.

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We have come together in recent years like never before (in our living memory).

The gathering of pace around certain projects has left a window of opportunity for this city to set its stall out as an inclusive city, as a city that of course welcomes strangers but importantly where its own citizens, from whatever walk of life, are welcome.

Obviously this is not just a Leeds issue, this is also countrywide, worldwide perhaps.

Attracting new talent and retaining it is key but can we be different and commit to truly nurturing talent in Leeds?

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Why can’t the next generation of young people from all backgrounds, race or religion in our neighbourhoods have the opportunity and desire to have international careers and be the next leaders of our city?

If we truly stand behind inclusive growth then we have no option but to find pathways to dig into the cracks of the city and spend time and resources in nurturing.

We need to be patient, prepared to be challenged and make room for a diverse and skilled next generation.

Nicola Greenan is on the 2023 steering group, LEP board and director of East Street Arts in Leeds.

Jack Simpson is the founder of Hyde Park Book Club.

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