Andrew Carter: Keep business in Leeds city centre and flats outside

Leeds has become a big retail centre, but can it continue to grow? (JPress).
Leeds has become a big retail centre, but can it continue to grow? (JPress).
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The news last week that Leeds city centre has been one of the country’s biggest boom areas over recent decades will come as little surprise to people living and working in the city.

This urban transformation has been obvious in the rapidly changing face of the city centre, and the ever-present cranes heralding new developments.

A new Centre for Cities report put numbers on these changes. It shows that the city centre population of Leeds has grown by 151 per cent since 2002, while the number of jobs in the city centre has risen by 34 per cent over a similar period – an increase of over 32,000 jobs in total.

This has undoubtedly been a good thing for people in Leeds. It has brought new homes and jobs (high-paying roles in particular), and has made the city centre a more vibrant and attractive place to live, work and play in.

However, there is no room for complacency about Leeds’ continued prosperity in the coming years.

For a start, the city will have to contend with the uncertainty that Brexit will bring, which is likely to hit Leeds harder than many other UK cities. That’s because the city’s boom has been built on the success of its firms exporting across the globe, and particularly the EU – and so it will be badly affected by any post-Brexit drop-off in trade. Moreover, other big cities such as Manchester and Birmingham – which Leeds is vying with in terms of attracting jobs and businesses – have an advantage over the city because of the metro mayors they introduced.

The mayors are already having a big impact in raising the profile of the places they represent, giving a voice to their needs, and fighting for new investment, jobs and business. As long as Leeds lacks a similar voice on the national and international stage, there is a real risk that it could fall behind other big cities.

The city ought to be ambitious about providing the homes it needs while protecting its commercial heart. In the short-term, Leeds can continue to expand its centre as a destination for businesses and urban living, without worrying too much about these competing demands. Certainly, the city is a long way off seeing the kind of pressures between commercial and residential property that London, for example, faces.

However, this situation won’t last forever. The number of people moving to the city centre is far outpacing the number of new jobs it is attracting. If these trends continue, Leeds’s urban residential boom will eventually start to undermine its commercial centre.

In other words, Leeds can’t have it all. At some point, tough calls will be needed as to whether the city centre should be prioritised as a place for work or to live. When that time comes, the priority needs to be protecting commercial space – which is why we have called for changes to planning laws, to allow local leaders to stop office space being converted into new residential units.

This may sound like a strange argument to make. Of course, nobody wants people in Leeds to go without good quality housing. Nor should the needs of businesses be put above the needs of people.

But this is not the dilemma the city faces. Protecting city centre commercial space does not have to come at the expense of building new homes. The choice is not whether we build offices or houses, but where we build both.

The reality is that different parts of Leeds have different roles to play in the city’s economy, For example, it is not by accident that businesses (especially high-paying ones) choose to locate in the centre of cities like Leeds, rather than the suburban outskirts. They do because the city centre offers them the access to clients, other relevant businesses, workers and infrastructure that they need to thrive.

In contrast, housing can be built in most other parts of the city. And if the city’s leaders are to protect the commercial space which has been critical in attracting jobs and opportunities for residents of Leeds, then it needs to consider building home in other areas of the city.

Potentially, that could mean considering some controlled development on green belt land, a prospect which has already proven controversial.

But the more successful Leeds becomes, the more difficult decisions will need to be taken on how to manage that success. Getting those calls rights will be crucial for the future prosperity of the city and its residents.

Andrew Carter is chief executive of Centre for Cities.