Tom Riordan: The rise and rise of Leeds – a champions league city now in need of devolution to meet its goals

Triity Leeds - wth a bicycle on its roof to celebrate the Tour de Yorkshire - is symbolic of the resurgence of the West Yorkshire city.
Triity Leeds - wth a bicycle on its roof to celebrate the Tour de Yorkshire - is symbolic of the resurgence of the West Yorkshire city.
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“WITH its strong talent pool, high-quality real estate, growing technology offering and two-hour connection with London, Leeds is the perfect location from which to launch our billion-dollar start-up”.

So says Tamara Box, managing partner of US legal giant Reed Smith. Last month CBI President Paul Dreschler said Leeds had transformed its image and economy over the last decade.

The success of the First Direct Arena is emblematic of the resurgence of Leeds.

The success of the First Direct Arena is emblematic of the resurgence of Leeds.

Burberry, Sky and Perform Group are further big-name relocations, and we want Channel 4 to be next, opening up broadcast media to a new generation of diverse talent.

The shopping and leisure offer is transformed with Trinity, Victoria Gate, the First Direct Arena and countless new restaurants adding to the museums, galleries and events.

We are halfway through a £10bn investment pipeline that is doubling the size of the city centre by regenerating the South Bank around a revamped HS2 train station, and developing an innovation district to the North with our universities, colleges and teaching hospital.

Around 3,000 new homes are being built each year, while protecting the parks and countryside that provide more green space than any UK city.

Ready, steady, go: Leeds was the setting for this year's Tour de Yorkshire finale.

Ready, steady, go: Leeds was the setting for this year's Tour de Yorkshire finale.

Leeds hosts world-leading cancer care in our hospital, research in our universities, and opera, ballet, art and theatre in our cultural institutions. In a diverse economy, healthcare, “fintech” and legal services grow fast alongside a formidable manufacturing sector producing everything from bionic hands to components for iPhones.

Events like Leeds Pride and the West Indian Carnival, as well as the 104 languages spoken in communities, are economic assets. Once Leeds United start to match the Leeds Rhinos, the Brownlees, our Olympian divers, Nicola Adams, Josh Warrington and Yorkshire cricket, then the city will be back in the “Champions League” on all fronts.

This success is a hard-won team effort. It’s only possible through collaboration with all sectors and neighbouring councils. The business community plays its civic role, with small independents leading the biggest Northern festivals on technology, food and buying.

Billion pound-plus deals for the technology “unicorns” Skybet and Callcredit show how people build world-leading companies here, and there are more to come.

These versatile, booming digital creatives drive up productivity and are making the city the technology capital of the Northern Powerhouse. In time, Leeds can complement London as Boston does New York.

Council leader Judith Blake has made sure our ambition is equally about compassion for those in poverty or in poor mental or physical health. One person without a home is one too many and we do have rough sleepers, but far fewer than other comparable cities through the council’s partnership with St George’s Crypt.

We take a permanent “housing first” approach and don’t use temporary bed and breakfast accommodation to house people. Similarly, early help has safely reduced numbers of children in care, bucking a national trend.

Children have an influential voice, with their own children’s mayor whose manifesto promotes kindness to combat bullying. The excellent voluntary sector reflects the strong community spirit of local towns and villages, all of which have charities that keep older people active, independent and socially connected. This keeps people out of hospital and supports The Yorkshire Post’s campaign to combat loneliness.

I’ve learned that in a big city your work is never done and you can’t always get everything right. We have deep-seated poverty in too many communities and need to improve educational performance so that all young people achieve their potential. The demand on health and social care services is incessant.

Transport remains a big challenge. A new partnership involving independent scrutiny is managing the first major national public transport investment in Leeds for decades. Cleaner buses, park and ride hubs, major highway improvements, cycling infrastructure, and new train stations are a good start.

Every city has congestion, and Leeds is by no means the UK’s worst, but we accept our responsibility to do more. Government must help us maintain the roads, back Transport for the North and develop an ambitious programme for the next decade to introduce a mass transit solution – whether rail, tram or new technology – to the city region, ready for when HS2 arrives, including a fast Leeds/Bradford/Manchester link.

The key to tackling these challenges is devolution. Having worked in Whitehall I know how bright people there are, but I’ve learned that people make better decisions when they have to account openly and daily to taxpayers. Why can Whitehall trust us to save £300m, but not to build a roundabout or remove a vehicle from the inner ring road without asking for permission? The prize is too big to give up now. We are close to a solution that would unite, rather than divide, people and pass the taxpayer’s test of delivering more for less. Scale matters as we hunt as a pack to win more international investment.

Leeds and Bradford, with its youthful population, are – together – bigger than Birmingham. Add the economic and cultural strengths of Wakefield, Halifax, Huddersfield and York, the strong North Yorkshire economy including Harrogate, the national parks and the East Coast, the manufacturing and logistics strengths of South and West Yorkshire and the Hull ports, and the opportunity is clear.

This unique combination of urban and rural makes Yorkshire attractive as a genuine alternative to London for investors, graduates and businesses.

As we leave the European Union, Whitehall is grappling with how to meet competing demands of cities, towns and counties and boost the economy outside London.

There is a growing confidence from political and business leaders that we can strike that balance most effectively ourselves, and apply the Tour de France effect to the economy, transport and jobs.

Tom Riordan is chief executive of Leeds City Council.

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