As part of Leeds City Council’s budget-setting last week, the authority announced it would be scrapping its annual Christmas lights switch-on event, as well as city centre screenings of international football.
The authority said it was making the changes in order to attempt to plug an £87m black hole in its finances, and has since claimed that the lights display itself would still be on the “same scale” as in previous years.
Leeds 2023 is set to be an “extraordinary, year-long programme of creative experiences” designed to increase footfall and participation in cultural events among the people of Leeds.
But Coun Mark Dobson (Ind), a former member of the authority’s decision-making executive board, has called the project “speculative”, and believes the money can be better spent on tried and tested ways of bringing people into the city centre.
He said: “They are saying there is money available for Leeds 2023, because they say there is a claim that it will revitalise the city centre.
“The lights switch-on is definitely a major attraction at a key time of year, and it drives footfall into the city centre.
“We want people to be in the city centre – so this feels like robbing Peter to pay Paul. The 2023 bid is entirely speculative as to whether it’s going to generate any income, interest or footfall in the city centre.
“Coming off the back of a pandemic as I hope we are by Christmas, it seems an incredibly short-sighted cut.”
As part of last week’s announcement, the council is set to slash £1.3m from its Leeds 2023 budget, but this only represents a 15 per cent cut.
Meanwhile, the authority wants to save £88,000 on the traditional lights switch-on event, as well as the ceasing of international football screenings in Millennium Square.
This will mean England’s future adventures in World Cups and European Championships will no longer be shown on the large screen opposite Civic Hall.
The council has since confirmed that £53,000 of this is set to be saved from the cancellation of the lights switch-on alone.
“It seems ridiculous,” added Coun Dobson. “We are now nearly a year into restrictions, and footfall in the city centres have been decimated – surely it would make sense to have a world class event in the city centre, in our Christmas lights, that generates goodwill while developing the city centre economy.”
The Leeds Christmas lights switch-on has long been one of the city centre’s most popular events, attracting a who’s-who of famous guests over the years, such as Paul Daniels, Mr Blobby and Right Said Fred.
A spokesperson for Leeds City Council said: “As part of ongoing efforts to meet unprecedented budget pressures, Leeds City Council has been identifying – and consulting on – a number of changes to the way we deliver our Christmas lights service in the coming years.
“These changes will mean that as of this year, we will no longer be holding our city centre Christmas lights switch-on event in the same format, saving the authority approximately £53,000 each year.”
As part of the cuts, the authority also plans to save more than £200,000 on shutting its Christmas lights workshop in Seacroft, and instead outsourcing for a cheaper option. The move is expected to involve the loss of nine full-time equivalent staff and the closure of the Leeds lights workshop in Seacroft.
But the statement from the council claimed: “Despite the severe budget pressures facing the council, we are pleased to say that despite changes to the switch-on event, the Christmas lights display itself will be on the same scale as in previous years.
“We remain committed to celebrating the festive season in Leeds and to continuing to support community-funded displays but unfortunately the financial realities we are confronted with mean we are being forced to make some incredibly difficult decisions about the services we will be able to provide in future.
“Our budget for 2021/22 also included a 15 per cent reduction in our remaining funding allocation for Leeds 2023 which will deliver a £1.35m saving for the council whilst maintaining the city’s shared ambition for a transformational year of culture.
“The council will continue to work with Leeds 2023 to help deliver this year-long cultural programme in 2023, engaging and involving communities across the city and making a significant contribution to Leeds’s economy.
“According to a study by the University of Hull, Hull’s City of Culture 2017 generated a substantial return on investment and played a huge role in supporting citizen’s health and wellbeing as well as delivering clear benefits for local business, community cohesion and young people.
“We are confident that hosting this major new event will be a key driver for tourism post-pandemic, enriching the city’s strong and diverse cultural profile while boosting its economic recovery.”