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Leeds – ‘Knightsbridge of the North?’

September 6, 2010
John Baron over at Guardian Leeds is running an interesting poll at the moment, asking about whether Leeds City centre is sanitised and sterile, whether we should welcome the development of yet more retail space in the city and whether Leeds should aspire to be the Knightsbridge of the North.
And I am genuinely surprised that the majority of pollsters seem to think that the ‘Knightsbridge Strategy’ makes sense….(NB the poll is still open so perhaps things will change).
As one who remembers when the Merrion Centre was new, and has seen several new developments ‘revolutionise’ the retail experience in Leeds, I am far from certain that they have helped to achieve any real progress for the city.
I can think of worse fates than to be the ‘Knightsbridge of the North’ – but not many.
It will commit us to a long term strategy based on retail infrastructure development and we will witness the ‘old’ centres going to the wall as newer, bigger more glamorous centres come to take their place.  The centre of retail gravity will shift around the city as too much capacity fights for too little footfall.
Developers, planners and builders will be happy.  So too will the politicians as they can keep announcing the ‘creation of new jobs in construction and retail’.  And those of us that can afford to buy our way to consumption fuelled temporary contentment may enjoy it for a while, before the more or less inevitable existential crisis, or whatever we use to keep it at bay, eventually gets us.
When I am working with people on their personal and professional development I ask them three questions:
  1. What do you want to have?
  2. What will you do in order to have it?
  3. If you do that what will you become?

In the case of Leeds the answers seem to be:

  1. We want to have – A prosperous economy based on tourism and retail (finance may still be crucial but is no longer flavour of the month), creating lots of low paid jobs and providing a great playground for those with disposable income
  2. What are going to do so that we may have it – Pursue ever greater retail and leisure development projects.  Allow our city to become a giant retail hoover to suck up capital from across the north and put it in the pockets of retailers and developers who can afford to play the game.
  3. What will we become if we do this – The ‘Knightsbridge of the North’. A northern simulacrum of a London suburb where the ‘haves’ can flaunt their wealth while the ‘have much lesses’ work the tills and warehouses and the ‘have nots’ are pushed out of sight. A city where the gaps between the rich and poor continue to rise, but GVA, like exam results, continues a relentless rise.  Where we rely on trickle down and Victorian philanthropy to retain an air of decency.

Often with personal and professional development the secret to getting a better future is to start the process with question 3.

Then, ‘what we do’ and ‘what we have’ might just serve our dreams rather than sabotage them.

That is why it is so important that we get a Vision for Leeds that works for all of us in the city.

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3 Comments
  1. Rob permalink

    “A northern simulacrum of a London suburb where the ‘haves’ can flaunt their wealth while the ‘have much lesses’ work the tills and warehouses and the ‘have nots’ are pushed out of sight. A city where the gaps between the rich and poor continue to rise”

    But the alternative where we do nothing and don’t attract the wealthy ‘haves’ as you put it will mean there won’t be any gaps between rich and poor, as there will only be poor and poorer as there will be no jobs at the tills and warehouses which you seem to look down on. Better to encourage the somewhat exagerated and agreed slightly ridiculous ‘Knightsbridge’ image and let the developers build in my opinion, so at least we get some semblance of success for the people of Leeds, even if it’s not entirely fair (but what part of life is completely fair?)

    • There are other ways Rob. Building ‘wealth from within’ rather than ‘attracting it’ from without.

      I am certainly not advocating doing nothing!

      It is the settling for a semblance of success, a shallow veneer, that leads us into difficulty in my opinion.

  2. Nik Williams permalink

    Good blog, it seems Leeds has taken the same route as Liverpool one (anchored by John Lewis) and Cardiff with the St David centre. There looking at catering for the creative classes (as Richard Florida calls them). This is seen as commercialising community space in Leeds, whilst the trickle down effect argument in regards to local people working in these developments, most of the persons working in the retail centres will be college and university students or graduates, whilst the cleaners and maintenance staff will with those unemployed Leeds residents with little or no qualifications on minimum wage with few prospects.

    Again good blog, but as stated above its the same story of regions and cities looking to be in the premier league of cities to attract multinational investment, highly skilled workers and tourists, but never realising that the local as a whole will not be boosted just the economy affecting the creative classes.

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