Leeds – The UK’s first City of Culture?


Leeds would be a controversial choice for the UK’s first City of Culture. No question. It would raise more than a few eyebrows and there would be a lot of teeth gnashing in larger, more prominent cities (naming no names).

But I believe it would be the right choice.

There’s something about the small scale of the city and the proximity of urban to rural that inspires ideas. Unlike much larger cities, the compact nature of Leeds acts as a cultural petri dish and cultivates ideas.

Leeds epitomises the can do attitude of the North and this permeates all aspects of the city, including its cultural output. Like many cities in the North, Leeds has been transformed in the past ten years into a truly sophisticated city with all the trappings of a modern city underpinned by the unique Leeds attitude: a combination of sheer bloody mindedness and creativity.

Of course, many cities would claim they could deliver this – but Leeds has plenty of examples of this in action. If I was putting together the Leeds bid for UK City of Culture, I’d be lifting the lid on the city’s diverse cultural scene and shining the spotlight on some of the most creative and inspiring work in the UK.

Design in Leeds has a rich heritage and to this day, the design scene in the city is as strong as ever, constantly changing and diversifying. From successful international design companies like Elmwood and Thompson Brand Partners to vibrant design collectives like Nous Vous, Leeds has it all. Our reputation as grounded but highly creative rightly attracts talent and clients from all over the UK.

The digital sector in Leeds is growing apace with some of the most innovative thinkers in the country plying their trade in the city. At the very cutting edge of digital inspiration are digital agencies like Numiko, madebypi and fuse8, that’s just the tip of the digital iceberg.

Our vibrant creative industries are a vital component in the city’s success and unlike other cities, they are valued and significant contributor to the growth of the city.

There’s also a groundswell of highly creative art and cultural fusion happening in the city right now with artists, photographers, sculptors, writers, film makers all collaborating on projects and engaging with the wider population. It’s these collaborations that are building a real sense of cultural boldness.

Musically, Leeds has made its mark too with arguably the UK’s most exciting and vibrant music scenes as the Guardian said “forget Manchester, Liverpool or Sheffield, Leeds has the most happening music scene outside of the capital” Enough said.

Of course, Leeds has always been internationally renowned for its artistic heritage and is home to Opera North, Northern Ballet Theatre, The Northern School of Contemporary Dance, West Yorkshire Playhouse and the Henry Moore Institute – all cultural powerhouses, part of one of the strongest and most influential arts scenes in the UK.

Alongside the usual things many cities do which allow them to lay claim to being a cultural centre (film festivals, music festivals, art/literary stuff), I think it’s also the influence of technology that’s making things so interesting round here right now. In Leeds, we’re not just doing cultural things; we’re finding new ways of doing cultural things. The various ‘camps’ that happen in the city (Barcamp, Photocamp, etc) are blurring the lines of creativity in a cultural, ‘arty’ sense, and creativity in the industrious, innovation sense.

Leeds has a long history of industrial innovation that has improved our cultural lives, and that spirit certainly thrives today. Temple Works – once a socially-conscious, industrial building is now transforming into a colossal art space, which will attract national and international attention.

Leeds isn’t perfect – and no city is. Ultimately creative people thrive on the mash up that is the modern city – the mess, the humanity, the contradiction. We need to feel we’re at the heart of something vital. And what we also crave is the escape from this that comes from being close to nature and of course Leeds delivers this – in spades.


  1. Speaking as someone who being very active in articulating technology as culture in Leeds, it’s a city that has a **long** way to go, to become a cultural hub…relative the other similarly sized cities – in the UK and further afield.

    So let’s put it to the test – can Leeds become the European Capital Of Culture 2015? Glasgow did it in 1990 and Liverpool in 2008 – what’re the steps we need to take to elevate Leeds to the same status?

  2. I agree 100%, Leeds has a huge amount to offer the national culturally; most of it goes un-noticed outside the city’s boundaries and could benefit from this kind of recognition.

    Of course, I could say the same 110% for Sheffield 😉

  3. Aspiration yes. Reality today? No.

    I think this is just the kind of thing that needs stoking as other cities look for their “cluster” niche, Leeds could drive forward on a pan-enterprise idea; Culture.

    How do we get this started? Harehills as a cultural hot spot (food/atmosphere), music scene expanded to small live venues, stop being obsessed with shopping. I like the idea of finance hub; but shopping? Sounds like we live in the country and no one has seen a shopping plaza before.

    Any culture aspiration must create an independent food scene (digital/theatre/film/festival/music/art aside). No city can claim the title without the basic foundation of culture; Good Food. Weird thing is we have the local ingredients to make the food outstanding!

    While we are at it; let’s crack the chain mentality altogether–independents weather storms while chains optimise spreadsheets.

    Culture Vulture–lead us into a Culture Capital.

  4. I don’t know if I’m in the position to compare to other cities… I have only lived in Northampton and Leeds and really haven’t spent a vast amount of time anywhere else to formulate much of a credible answer.

    All I know is that I love living in Leeds, I love its compactness in the city centre, the ability on a evening out to walk from trendy waterfront, to cool bar, to an alternative music venue to nightclub….

    I love the distinction and variety between the different areas, the Waterfront, City centre, Chapel Allerton, the rapidly growing and evolving Holbeck Urban Village, Headingly etc etc.

    In terms of food culture, Leeds’ ability to embrace the new and different has only helped it, cuisines from the furthest flung corners of the world, delis, cafes, BYO, posh a la carte we have it all…. except a Michelin star (Although Anthony’s is more than worthy of one).

    I don’t want to be down on a city I love, but in my honest opinion I think Leeds still has some way to go before it is the national leader for culture, but the only way is up and I’m more than willing to stick around for the ride.

  5. I think what could be holding it back right now is a single beacon; something that epitomises the cultural intentions of the city.

    Sure, Phil has mentioned a lot of things which all deserve kudos, from its arts, music, and creative scenes, etc. But all of these operate in different venues and to my eyes seem quite insular.

    Look at the awesome Custard Factory in Birmingham ( http://www.custardfactory.co.uk/ ). In the last month or so, they’ve had a run of The Importance of Being Earnest, an open-mic poetry evening, a Polish art exhibition and the Supersonic Festival – a gathering of astoundingly cult punk/noise/underground bands.

    If the likes of Opera North, the Henry Moore Institute, Dance To The Radio and the like all started doing things in the same place, their influences could/should start rubbing off on each other, leading to new opportunities.

    This is what I hope Temple Works will encourage, and while it doesn’t have the luxury of being propped up by public money, this will hopefully give those working within it a hunger and verve to take chances and make a name for the city.

    1. Dean

      This post makes a lot of sense to me.

      One of the things that Leeds has to learn (and not just in the cultural sector) is about the power of association and collaboration. ‘Command and control’ is no longer likely to work well for any organisation. A number of powerful institutions in the city still act as if it does.

      The ‘luxury of being propped up by public money’ is in my experience rarely that much of a luxury. It may feel that way to begin with – but not for long… Whoever supplies the money to ‘prop up’ an innovative project like temple works – be it public, private or a mish mash of the two, the essential challenges remain the same – To create collaborations and associations that produce more than any of the parties involved could do in isolation.

      I also think that great care needs to be taken to understand what a private sector developer/investor is REALLY looking to achieve and whose interests they are working for. Occasionally such developments work well for local people – but this is far from always being the case. The gentrification of the urban fringe often results in local people being driven further from the city as their communities are taken over by incomers.

  6. Can a city with a hardcore homeless population of 140 around 10% of whom die each year really call itself ‘cultured’?
    Can a city with such a wide gap between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ call itself cultured?
    Would the pursuit of ‘cultural’ recognition help in the development of a fair, just and happy city?
    Or is it just a diversion?
    ‘Culture’ needs to be embedded in and emerge from the reality of the city – not a veneer pasted over the top – to make the city more attractive to inward investment.
    The current ‘cult’ of enterprise – narrowly defined as starting businesses – has missed a trick. If we define enterprise more broadly – ‘people doing wonderfully well the things that they love to do’ then I believe that we might have both a more cultured and a socially just city.

  7. Oh, come on Mike – I’m all for healthy cynicism but no-one said you had to have the perfect social model to be a city of culture.

    Leeds has some world-leading institutions with a burgeoning music scene and some healthy, growing and successful design, digital and cultural companies.

    I for one would love to see its status of City of Culture secured – Liverpool’s renaissance has been powered by its investment leading up to the Capital of Culture and tourists continue to flood to its varied cultural attractions.

    Some public investment into further art galleries – particularly for more modern and creative spaces (given the downturn has lead to lots of empty spaces how great to see the Council throwing a few thousand at creating temporary pop-up public art spaces) would be beneficial – as well as pumping big bucks into the big ticket centres.

    By creating artistic champions that the city can back people from all social levels will get involved – people aspire to what they see as success: increase success for some and you raise aspirations for others.

    Good luck Leeds.

    1. As someone who has spent quite a bit of time working in Liverpool over the last few years I am far from convinced about the renaissance in that City.

      I am not arguing for a perfect social model (preventing 10 deaths a year of homeless people in the city hardly seems the pursuit of perfection)I am asking that we appraise our priorities, motivations and the consequences of where we spend our time and money.

      ‘Increase success for some and you raise aspirations for others’ is a great soundbite – and one I have some sympathy for. How come as we get more ‘successful’ people we also get wider inequalities between rich and poor? Also how come ‘happiness’ levels drop as wealth increases? Investing in a cultural elite and hoping for trickle down is no more likely to succeed than investing in a entrepreneurial elite.

      Let’s provide better support for everyone that wants to make something happen in their lives and communities – be they artists or not.

      And let’s not forget the many realities that make up the City of Leeds.

  8. As much as I’d like to agree with the sentiment of this I really cant, in my mind Leeds has gone backwards culturally since I first visited it in 1997. In its drive to upscale itself it’s driven out a lot of its soul and become, by and large, a typical UK Everytown.

    In Yorkshire terms I’m constantly amazed by Sheffield and find that their more centralist, single plan model for civic development has reaped some amazing rewards. Nationally though, I still think Leeds has a long way to go to be even seen as a contender to Manchester (grrrrr) and I can think of London boroughs alone (Hackney anyone?) that offer more than Leeds.

    Leeds needs some real development and hopefully Temple Works will provide the magnet/catalyst/moth to the flame effect that is so badly needed. There’s a long, long way to go until Leeds/Bradford is talked about in the sense that Manchester/Salford is though. Let’s concentrate on upping our game off the radar before we start hyperbolising though.


  9. Whilst Leeds has massively improved it’s civic cultural offerings in recent years and is starting to gain a re-invigoration from the private sector I’m a little perplexed as to how Leeds imagines it stands out from other cities.

    We need to be sure about what our cultural heritage actually is. Most of the ‘big names’ are co-opted in from cities and towns in the region (Henry Moore, Barbera Hepworth, David Hockney); musically there have been highlights – but no long-term major players (correct me if I’m wrong…) and little to truly highlight the city on the international stage.

    Leeds’ cultural identity is confused and needs some clear re-definition before we hope to position the city as a city of culture. A city of multi cultures we are -one that works better than many; but not as a whole. Those who are positioned/position themselves as being ‘diverse’ only get to merge with other occasionally on set days in the year – and even then exposes the ghetto mentality of the diverse (I’m thinking the Mela, Carnival and Pride here).

    Where is the kiosk or other permanent fixture that pushes cultural activity in the city? Where are the initiatives that truly try hard to bring the citizens into the cultural mix? And – where is the big Leeds cultural events that bring in outside audiences? I certainly don’t think the ‘Carling’ Leeds Festival and International Pianoforte Competition (sorry; didn’t research proper names…) are enough to put Leeds on the map.

    A city of culture needs a culturally significant event AND a culturally significant resource – I don’t think Leeds has either, and if it does we certainly aren’t marketing it right.

    That said – I’d embrace any activities to make my city – and I truly embrace Leeds as home – more culturally significant.

  10. Well, this has certainly caused some controversy. And I have to say that was the point of it.

    I share lots of the uncertainty in the intelligent and compelling arguments set out in the previous posts. To be honest, I would agree that I’m not sure Leeds deserves to be the UK’s first city of culture (different to the European tag, note) for lots of the reasons set out above. We have lots wrong with our cultural and social make up – but which Northern city doesn’t??

    Okay, we are some way behind Manchester in terms of infrastructure and facilities and light years ahead of cities like Liverpool that have the tag, but somehow fall short of the mark. Newcastle, whilst a great city, doesn’t have the richness and diversity that we enjoy in West Yorkshire. I would concur that Sheffield vies for the Yorkshire city of culture and does have a lot to offer – but local loyalties count for a lot round these parts and I’d back the Leodiensian life any day.

    Surely the point of this is ambition?

    The first city to bag this title will not be the city already doing it, but the city that wants it the most. The city to whom it means the most. The city to which it will make the biggest difference.

    It believe it will become a self-fulfilling prophesy. Look what happened with Glasgow when they won European City of Culture. One minute you wouldn’t dream of visiting the city for fear of being hammered by mental Glasweigans – next minute the city is the epitome of Euro cool. Okay, a slight exaggeration, but you get my drift.

    In Leeds, we’ve got so far on the commercial and retail wave. Someone once described the city as an empty Prada box – stylish and desirable on the outside with no real cultural substance inside. Whilst I don’t believe that’s entirely true, there is more than a grain of truth there.

    If Leeds were to get the chance to be the UK’s first city of culture it would present a unique opportunity for Leeds to build on its cultural heritage and draw together all of the creative strands that currently make the city one of the most exciting and vibrant cities in the Uk right now.

    Let’s hope the bid is in the hands of a bunch of people who know what that means to the city and how to articulate it passionately and compellingly.

    1. I am a big believer in self fulfilling prophecies. So lets make a prophecy that would make a real difference:
      City of Inclusion
      City of Social Justice
      City where Everyone Counts
      City of Sustainability
      City of Compassion

      Off the top of my head each of these would have at least as much merit as City of Culture in driving forward the economic and social development of the city. And a more balanced appraisal of the city might result in the following monikers.

      City of Love, Hate and Indifference
      City of Finance, Call Centres, Developers and Gentleman’s Clubs
      City of Exclusion and Exclusivity

      I find it fascincating and wonderful that this post on City of Culture has stimulated more discussion and debate than the official Leeds Initiative Vision of Leeds Forum that has been recently launched http://www.leedsinitiative.org/page.aspx?id=12172

  11. Oh dear, quite a range of comments on the topic so far! I think Leeds is a good contender for city of culture. It doesn’t have to be perfect – nowhere can claim to be that. And the prestige and ‘celebrity’ of it would surely forge better local collaborations and encourage more social improvement of the city.

    There are areas that are not as advanced as other cities – for example the transport (if only the tram system had gone ahead!) And there will always be more that could be done about the less advantaged in society, like helping the homeless, drug addicts, people below the poverty line and those with mental health issues. But Leeds has some good charities working on this like The Big Issue, St Anne’s Centre and MIND which would only benefit from some more exposure and support, which the lead up to the event might achieve.

  12. What a lot of b****x.
    Methinks someone out there is attempting to spin some words in order to justify their own , no doubt, overpaid job.
    Have you not heard of Manchester or London ?
    More like first city of bull***t.

    1. Only 2 cities in the England according to the bbc

      Anyway – birth place of UK club culture how’s that. The warehouse was first.

  13. I’m sure most of the posts here are valid – why? Because we are all entitled to our view, and that’s why we bother to speak out.

    The truth is that no matter what we think, the benefits of a positive reputation and wider awareness of the City must surely link to the commercial success it secures – why again? Because everyone will win (Sure, some will win more than others) Inward investment in the city will bring jobs, prosperity and with it along will come more cultural diversity.

    So I’m all for promoting Leeds (or ‘LeedsLiveitLoveit’ as it is called by some)

    But if ‘marketing’ Leeds is what its all about – why do we collectively accept that we be promoted with such lame tactics as the dysfunctional and entirely outmoded marketingleeds website? – and yes, it is new!

    If Leeds is at the cutting edge of digital industries (and thanks to Phil for the recognition of fuse8 in the original article), surely we could do better? Well of course we could, but given that the public money is spent by accountants and lawyers, what should we expect? Maybe an independent, and suitably skilled technical person could have been consulted on the solution before money was wasted, or would that be just too obvious?

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