Jonathan Morgan, managing director of Morgans, on the changing face of Leeds
Leeds city centre has become as recognised for its skyline as it has anything else.
Earlier this year, the notoriously outspoken Jeremy Clarkson went so far as to compare Yorkshire’s largest city to New York.
But 18 years ago, it was a very different story. The apartment blocks that pepper the city’s horizon were a mere glint in their developers’ eyes.
When Jonathan Morgan opened the doors of estate agent Morgans in 1997, there were around 600 residences in the city centre.
Now, around 11,000 properties are contained in the various blocks around the city.
“The city centre was something that really appealed to me.,” Mr Morgan says. “I’d seen it in other cities, and I’d lived in Switzerland as a kid - everybody lives in apartments there.
“When we started, it was seen as a low-cost environment and a place people didn’t want to be.
“But it really interested me because I’d seen it working in other cities. It seemed common sense.”
Morgans was started around its founder’s dining table in early 1997.
Now a £2.3m-turnover business with two offices and 40 staff, Mr Morgan has played a key role in the growth of the city centre’s residential community.
Having started his property career at Headingley Estates, Mr Morgan parted company with the firm following a six-year stint.
As daunting as starting from scratch was, Mr Morgan said the Leeds business community was an important asset.
He says: “There’s an amazing support for entrepreneurial spirit here. If people reach out and say, ‘I’m thinking of starting my own business’, there’s no concern they might be a competitor.
“There’s always a really strong support base, and we really got that from so many people.”
Morgans first big break came in a matter of weeks, when it was appointed to manage the sale of 41 flats at Great George Street’s Centaur House for City Lofts.
It was one of a series of “magic moments” that put Morgans at the centre of Leeds’ development explosion.
Mr Morgan offered advice to developers for free, building relationships that would prove lucrative as the city’s skyline began to rise. “We think we’ve probably sold about 70 per cent of what was built,” he says.
Currently, Leeds less of its population in the city centre than Manchester, and about the same level of city residential as Liverpool.
Yet almost a decade ago, it was singled out for its move to apartment living.
In 2006, London architect Maxwell Hutchinson dubbed Leeds “the empty flats capital of the north” and predicted that the apartments which sprung up in the boom years would be the “slums of the future”.
That claim, Mr Morgan says, was “never true” - yet it did “untold damage” to Leeds’ reputation. He says: “It’s always been well occupied, and no less well occupied than any other Northern city.”
The myth has hurt investment - developers funded by institutional investors struggle to secure backing for schemes in Leeds, Mr Morgan says.
But slowly but surely, it is turning a corner.
After a number of years of little-to-no development as the economy and property sector found its feet again, national developers are once again interested in the city.
Mr Morgan suggests there could be an additional 5,000 to 6,000 units over the next seven to eight years.
He says: “You can safely assume that with economic growth comes population growth. Therefore in order to accommodate the number and type of people we need to drive the engine room, we need more flats.
“It’s simple as that. We had no development for three years but the population has continued to grow. The office market is now booming, on top of Trinity, on top of the Arena, on top of the Southern railway station entrance and John Lewis coming to the city - which is not to be taken lightly - you’ve got to assume we’re dramatically undersupplied.”
As the economic recovery continues to take hold, interest in schemes from prominent national developers is growing.
It is an opportunity for Leeds to learn from other cities, Mr Morgan says.
“If you make the mistake of focusing on your home city, you don’t learn anything because your reference points are right in front of you.
“These developers bring with them this perspective of high quality sustainable housing.
“It brings something different to Leeds, it brings vitality and it challenges people.”
But Mr Morgan stresses that making Leeds a great place to be is not just about putting the right buildings in place.
Charity and community work is high on Mr Morgan’s agenda. As a long-time supporter of homeless charity St George’s Crypt, he co-founded fundraising event The Crypt Factor, which has raised £420,000 over nine years.
This summer, he joined the board of St George’s Crypt Development Company, a community interest company that will provide homes and community facilities for homeless and disadvantaged people throughout Leeds.
The real way for Leeds to put itself on the map is by providing support to those in the community that need it most, Mr Morgan says.
“We should be an economically successful city that looks after its own. No other city says that. “If you’re a city that’s really civilised, you’ll look after people who have nothing.
“There are hundreds of families here who aren’t putting food on the table. There’s thousands of older people who are living in isolation. There’s thousands of kids who don’t have a job, aren’t being trained and aren’t going to school. That’s not right.
“I don’t believe it’s beyond the wit of the population of Leeds to resolve those problems.”
Title: Managing director, Morgans
Date of birth: 20.2.63
Education: Not much
First job: Caddy at Alwoodley Golf Course
Favourite holiday destination: Barbados/Vancouver Island
Favourite film: Cool Hand Luke
Favourite song: Another Girl, Another Planet, The Only Ones.
Last book read: The latest Jack Reacher novel
Car driven: Audi S3
Most proud of: My Daughters