Leeds needs a city vision

Leeds City

The announcement that Leeds & Partners will cease to be from next year, with the organisations activities and responsibilities being transferred to the Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), has been met with little surprise, and even less regret from the majority of business leaders in the city.

The organisation has had a controversial and rollercoaster two and a half year existence, with its high profile chief executive demonstrating an ability to be creative and ‘out there’ but less impressive, or perhaps bothered, at doing the local networking, schmoozing and charm offensive that is often as big a part of such a role – particularly if you are an ‘outsider’ as Londoner Lurene Joseph very clearly was.

It is a pity this innovative approach to inward investment, marketing and growth didn’t work in the way the city’s decision makers had obviously hoped, because actually Leeds, the city, needs a single, focussed entity to big up and major on the brand.

‘Live it, Love it’ may have ended up as an unloved slogan, but it was at least for Leeds and about Leeds. Can an organisation such as the LEP, which has a responsibility for the whole city region, really give Leeds the prominence and dominance that it deserves?

As Local Authority leaders from West Yorkshire dismiss calls for a ‘metro mayor’ in the hope that a different coalition with different demands will be running the Westminster show from May 2015 (good luck with that one), the region is in danger of losing its way with a confusion emerging about how it does see its future governance arrangements.

If the Combined Authority is to progress as the strategic body for the area, would it not have been the better organisation to place the Leeds & Partners work? Is Leeds accepting an ‘equal’ billing to their neighbouring authorities for a quiet life, in the hope that as the city growth agenda accelerates those neighbours will eventually see that the big city brand really is the only show in town? Would the council leadership, post the General Election, really set its face against the establishment of an elected mayor if they were offered the deal Manchester has secured?

All of these unanswered questions leave a huge uncertainty about what and where Leeds is at the moment, and uncertainty is never a great comforter to business. For what it’s worth, I think something with more clarity and purpose will emerge, but this needs to happen sooner rather than later.

The only consolation, and it is a small one, is that other city regions are struggling with similar challenges as ‘devolution’ becomes a genuine opportunity, rather than the political panacea it had been seen as for many a year. Liverpool’s mayor has fallen out with his Combined Authority, and they are having a right old bun fight on Merseyside as to the pros and cons of a mayoral model; in the Midlands, places like Wolverhampton want the additional power and resource, but are choking on the proposition of working in partnership with the big city that is Birmingham.

In the end, as Rochdale, Wigan, Stockport, Trafford and even the city of Salford can testify, only when a city region settles on the major city being the hub, the attack brand and the economic driver can a city region progress. The sooner the civic leaders of West Yorkshire reach that same conclusion, and truly accept Leeds as the attack brand in this part of the world, the better.