Leeds Salon asks ‘What is the Future of Leeds’

Barney Allen http://contredour.com/
Barney Allen http://contredour.com/

Ahead of Leeds Salon’s debate ‘What is the Future of Leeds?’ Regular blogger Paul Thomas  looks at the councils plans to promote culture in the city.

Leeds Salon has covered a lot of topics in its first two years: the school curriculum, multiculturalism, freedom of speech, the future of energy, poetry and the pros and cons of economic growth. The next Salon is about Leeds itself.  In ‘What is the Future of Leeds?’ we aim to look at, amongst other things: how Leeds will define itself in the 21st century; how it can be the great regional and international city it aspires to be; and more broadly, what makes and defines a city.

The Salon was in part inspired by the Culture Vulture article ‘Cultural Report on Leeds: C minus, could do better … discuss’, by Neil Owen of Test Space (who’s one of our panelists). Neil critiqued Leeds for, amongst other things, its lack of “mid-level opportunities or spaces to showcase, sell or network”, which are necessary to retain the city’s creative talent. This article sparked considerable online debate, which has carried on in the Cultural Conversations organised by Culture Vulture. Discussion has ranged from what Leeds’ has to offer culturally to how could the cultural sector promote itself better; and what role can or should the Council play in this.

The Vision for Leeds sets out the Council’s aims for the city up to 2030, the main one being for Leeds to ‘go up a league’ and become “an internationally competitive city”. As part of this aim the Council wants Leeds to achieve recognition as a leading artistic and cultural centre, with “first class cultural facilities” that are able to develop talent in the city. Progress has been and is still being made in this area. Within recent years we’ve seen the completion of the Carriageworks, the Northern Ballet & Dance School, the renovation of the Grand Theatre, the completion of the new (if sparsely populated) Museum; while the long-discussed Arena is planned for 2012.

However, I’d argue that the Council’s desire to turn Millennium Square into a “cultural quarter” is unlikely to be successful. Although it has been used for events and concerts, generally, outside of the Carriageworks, there’s little else to attract and nothing to retain a cultural community around the Square. More importantly, while a laudable aim, the creation of any such ‘quarter’ – which Leeds does lack – is unlikely to be brought into being by a city council, especially if it wishes to promote culture for instrumental reasons rather than as an end in itself.

For the Vision, “cultural activities are vital ingredients in raising the spirit and confidence of people and communities”. While the Council’s Strategic Plan argues that “the benefits of culture are linked to improved health, wellbeing and educational attainment”. But isn’t this asking a lot of ‘culture’, however it’s defined? While culture can certainly be uplifting and inspiring, can it do the job of politics or medical science? And what type of culture is likely to be sanctioned by the Council through this kind of agenda? Will it be only those cultural activities that promise to help the Council achieve health and wellbeing targets?

A vibrant city needs a vibrant cultural sector that both attracts and retains talent. And the Council can have a role in this, not just through providing major new facilities or upgrading existing ones, but also by looking at how policy can help the independent culture sector develop. For example, it could introduce an affordable hourly rate for all Council-run rooms around Millennium Square and elsewhere in the city. It needs to look at how empty premises and areas of the city centre could be made available to budding cultural entrepreneurs and groups. And it should remove restrictions on the use of public space, such as the expensive licensing procedures for leafleting in and around the city centre, which hits the smaller and newer groups and initiatives the most, and for whom it’s most vital. Public space should be just that, space that the public can use without having to fill out forms first.

It’s good to have a vision, and some the Vision for Leeds on the cultural front has already been achieved. But when it comes to promoting culture the Council needs to be a facilitator rather than a regulator. And it should value culture for its own sake rather than for ends to which it’s not suited.

Paul Thomas is co-founder and organiser of Leeds Salon. ‘What is the Future of Leeds?’ is in the Congreve Room, West Yorkshire Playhouse, starting at 6:45pm on Wednesday 23 February. See the website for details


  1. I’m hoping that some of your ideas Paul may come to life when we all get together at We Are All Jim! https://theculturevulture.co.uk/culture-vulture-events/cultural-conversation-v-we-are-all-jim/

    Partly the idea is to bridge that gap between what we expect of THE COUNCIL and our own responsibilities in co-designing the city we want to live in.

    Having met a fair few of the people doing stuff in the council recently, I’m struck by how much of an appetite, (maybe born of economic necessity) there is to be a facilitator. What I think we all need to do now is look at how we can put aside prejudices based on past trials and tribulations and see if we can find a common language and way of doing stuff that helps us focus on the bigger picture.

    Obviously that bigger picture does depend on where you stand in front of the canvas!

  2. Great stuff. And important.

    All the debate about the kind of city we want to be and how we get there is, on one hand, just a lot of hot air, but on the other hand is a series of conversations where people develop and test ideas and possibilities. All worthwhile action starts with a conversation – not a plan. Or a vision.

    However the reality is that it is a tiny minority who are interested in ‘co-designing our city’. The vast majority of us are just trying to get through our own lives, the best way we know how. And while the professional place shapers and planners will continue to do their darndest (more retail opportunities on the way), and try to ‘engage us’ along the way, it is the decisions and actions of the vast majority who have a much more personal interest in Leeds life that will really shape the future.

    Strikes me that the development of a city can be led in 2 broad ways, which are not mutually exclusive. Firstly we can shape the city to make it attractive to certain groups and types of people. We can build a compelling cultural offer and a good commercial base to attract the wealth creators. This is deficit based development. We do things to attract people who have skills and know how that we do not.

    Secondly we can shape the city to make it more attractive and supportive for people that are already here. We can base the development of the city on the development of its people and communities. It is an approach to development that honours who we are, where we have come from, how we can change in order to shape our lives and, as a corollary, the city in pursuit of progress.

    I have been arguing for many years that in Leeds, as in most UK cities we favour the former approach excessively over the latter. It is placemaking orthodoxy. It involves big ticket ribbon cutting projects, international exchange trips, hob-nobbing with money men and women and the trappings that come with it. It ticks the boxes for the politicians and allows ‘investors’ to have a sporting chance to make a good return. At its best it makes things better for everyone. But it also widens the gaps between the rich and poor.

    The second approach involves sitting and listening to people about their hopes and fears for the future and slowly building their power to create change. Starting from where they are at, working with what they have got. Forging relationships, shaping projects. No glamour, little money and progress that is organic, potentially transformational and sustainable but that seldom offers the opportunities to cut a big ribbon. At least not quickly. But I hope that the future of Leeds features more of this kind of development – We are all Jim, Cultural Conversations, Progress School, Leeds Salon, Bettakultcha all shaping the present and the future – starting from where we are, working with what we have got.

  3. I agree that local authorities (everywhere, not just in Leeds) should play a facilitating role in a city’s cultural life.

    But I really hope that culture can be more than just “uplifting and inspiring”. Sometimes I like culture to be fun. Other times I want to be challenged by culture, to learn through it and connect with other people. That’s not too big an ask is it?

  4. I absolutely agree Abby and would add that ‘culture’ is often defined in a narrow way by us middle class people – before anyone says ‘Shud-up Mick you’re an oik,’ I’m defo, almost middle class. That what was so refreshing about the Leeds Casuals exhibition. OK photo exhibitions are straight narrow culture but the subject matter meant that the punters at that ex were, ON THE WHOLE, people who are more likely to be found in a pub than consuming this narrowly defined culture. For me it’s important that ‘culture’ engages with that cross-section rather than just being created for and by a small group.

    On Mikes the big vs small initiatives there surely has to be some middle ground. (I’ll tell you about my experience with Leeds City Council on small level in a bit.) Although I find the White Rose Centre and big-chains soul destroying I think we can be a bit sniffy about the private sector, retail, banking, law firms etc when we should be trying to engage with them. The strength of the Leeds economy lies in this private sector, it is why wages in Leeds are higher than any other northern city and why we have a bigger middle class than any other northern city. This bigger more affluent middle class are the people who most attend and fuel all the traditionally defined arts and culture. Anyone want to do a break down of an average audience at the WYP or the up-coming Henry Moore exhibition? Our strong middle class put Leeds in a unique position and that strength will be exaggerated over the next few years and is due to our strong private sector.

    Right I’ve got a clever and influential book-buyer to haggle with and I’ve babbled way more that I meant to so I’ll come back to the first-hand experience of Leeds City Concil and small cultural expression in a tad…it’s really not good.

  5. Mick

    I have spenrt the last 20 years working on the role of enterprise and entrepreneurship in community development. I am not all sniffy about the private sector and enterprise. In deed I am a real advocate. However there are some businesses that are damaging for local economies and communities.

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