Which Way for Armley?


One of the stupidest things in politics is saying that you are the best.”

Antanas Mockus, the guy who said this knew a thing or two about local politics. He was twice elected mayor of a failing, violent, anti-social city in a country suffering a “horrible disaster” that makes our current austerity policy look like a children’s tea party. As a recent book, Radical Cities, puts it, “by the end of his two terms the homicide rate fell by 70%, traffic fatalities dropped by 50%, water usage was down 40%, tax revenues had tripled.” But, far more importantly, “his greatest single achievement was to make Bogota feel like a city with a future.” Not a bad record for a clown who ran his campaign for mayor on the platform of “No P” – no publicity, no politics, no party and no plata (money).

Armley isn’t Bogota (imagine Armley’s murder rate at around 25 a year, domestic violence common and unquestioned, and a drinking culture featuring semi-automatic weapons) but I was reminded of Antanus Mockus’s example when I read about the Armley Town Street Revival Plan the other day in the YEP.

Our local politicians want to enrol everyone from the police to local businesses, community groups and residents in a project to make “Armley the best town centre in the city.” They are determined to solve “the string of problems that currently blight the area, including street drinking, anti-social behaviour, rubbish dumping and derelict buildings.”

Antanus Mockus focused on what he called “the culture of citizenship” and presided over what he called a “classroom of 6.5 million people” (Armley is a bit more manageable). He wanted people to be more civically minded, and wanted to increase the number of people peacefully getting other people to behave like better citizens. He once hired 420 mime artists to make fun of traffic violators because he reckoned Colombians feared ridicule more than being fined – it worked. He printed 350,000 red cards, like the ones football referees use. On the red side was a thumbs-down icon, and on the reverse side a white thumbs-up; “The idea was that drivers could chide one another for acting selfishly… or applaud one another for their patience and generosity.” His approach was imaginative, playful and humourous, and he often made fun of his own office, playing the role of a “hero” and dressing as a “supercitizen” in spandex to urge people to take care of their environment. Superciudadano was the embodiment of everything he wanted the citizens of his city to be, but it was also self-parody. Bogotanos loved it. Civic pride burgeoned. He never claimed Bogota was “best” however. He knew that would be ridiculous no matter how much the city was improved.


Our local politicians want Armley to be best.

They aren’t joking. Just look at how grimly determined they are…

Screenshot 2015-06-01 at 13.09.34

Becoming best is a serious business.

It involves attracting more investment.

It demands the police “redoubling” their efforts to cut crime and make the streets safer.

It requires the council working closely with local businesses and community groups.

It insists a consultation exercise be carried out to find out what local residents, businesses and community groups want to see happen to improve the town.

No hint of humour or humility here. This isn’t the time to be creative or innovative. The best is blindingly obvious.

I reckon Mockus would try to see the funny side in this. He might gently ask a few inconvenient questions…

What if the investment attracted is used in ways that undermine and erase the “vibrant… historic Leeds gem that it once was”?

If the police have to “redouble” their efforts, why have they been working at half-cocked in the meantime? And how do we know that the present focus of their efforts isn’t part of the problem, in which case doubling them would make the problem twice as bad.

What have the council been doing if they haven’t been working closely with local businesses and communities? (I expect they have been working closely, and this sort of empty phrase is just one of those things politicians say when people need reassuring that “something must be done.”

And, more problematically, he might ask what if the “consultation exercise” generated demands that were not acceptable? What if the consultation led people to a less than civic conclusion? The comments on the YEP article (and some local Facebook groups) seem to suggest that some work needs to be done around the local “culture of citizenship.” Armley may not be at the same level of social division and anti-social strife as Bogota in the mid ‘90s, but it’s far from the picture of a welcoming, diverse, thriving community the politicians would like us to believe.

Antanas Mockus said his slogan was “build on what has been built.” I had a walk around Armley to check what’s there to build upon…


















Some great stuff. Some not so great. But can it ever be “the best” high Street in Leeds? Isn’t that just one of the stupid things politicians say?

Fortunately I think the residents of Armley have a sense of humour.


  1. You seem to think pointing a flashy camera (I saw you!) at a few shops constitutes investigative journalism (if you’d investigated you’d have included the Real Junk Food Cafe, or is that a bit too optimistic for you?) I agree the YEP outlook is toss too but those of us who live here just get on with it and in fact there is a lot to build on and with, which has no need of white liberal condescension. Anyhow, if you really do care about the place come for a coffee at RJFC and set up a community photo group, you’ll get pics a tad more interesting than shop fronts I can assure you.

    1. I’ve never claimed to be a journalist, investigative or otherwise. I was just out for a wander. As I do.

      And the flashy camera was a rather old, and most definitely inexpensive, tablet. I have bad eyesight too. Which explains why my photos are uniformly rubbish.

      I don’t get why you think I’m pessimistic? I just think the politicians talk crap. And the YEP article was about Armley Town Street… it didn’t mention the Junk Food Project either.

  2. I agree with Phil

    First up keep the snaps coming I like them – very Caravan Gallery. if you have not been you might like what they are doing over in Bradford at the moment and also their exhibition at Impressions plug plug – nice to know you use a tablet.

    Second you are totally right to highlight the empty rhetoric and meaningless jargon which exits the mouths of our local and national representatives of which RR is a fine exponent. She can sound numbingly banal even when the issues are important, for example when she said she was going to hold the feet of officials of Housing Leeds “to the fire” over conditions in the Clydes. Yeah sure.

    The tragedy is of course that the language has emptied out as power of these representatives to do much about “the challenges the areas faces” has also declined. Unfortunately they are too arrogant, have their noses too firmly in the trough, or are too committed to seeing things stay largely as they are to ever admit this.

    I would have to go back about 50 years to a time that politicians and LCC council made any real difference to the area and of course looking back you can criticise what they did. Sure they rebuilt town street but they also destroyed Tong Road shops. This was before anyone talked about the benefits of walking in a liveable city. They cleared out Castleton and built New Wortley which itself now needs some regeneration.

    Since then I can only think of the Armley Asbestos tragedy where the MP, committed local journalists and “the community” got together for environmental justice and made an impact. What I remember from that too was that LCC came out badly for an earlier cover up.

    Now that the area has changed demographically, newer issues have presented themselves yet the old issues of poverty, poor housing, poor environment and disease have remained, while the powers of the LCC to do anything about these issues even if it had the will has declined politically and financially.

    What has taken over is “the market” whether this be loans companies, ethnic shops or private property developers who before the crash saw the area as “up and coming” and “bohemian” – as least in their eyes. Whatever happened to the West Leeds Gateway heavily backed by Jonathon Morgan?

    The political gap has also been filled, again I would say over the last 50 years, by projects and personalities of various stripes who have for the overwhelming majority come and gone with a life span of approximately five years. The lists of arrivals seeking to make a difference is endless and highly opportunistic. Some have even had help from local councillors.

    These are the people with the real middle class condescension.

    What will carry on is the determination of people “born and bred” in the area and who for the sake of their kids and older dependents have a stake and a commitment to carry on and those newer arrivals who want to make a go of things economically.

    If you want to call an area “vibrant” – here it is.

    So don’t lets be naïve here we can ignore todays empty political jargon and the “youngsters” who will come and go – things change but the basics will remain largely the same even after we get an elected mayor, the Tour de Yorkshire and city of culture.

    Old enough to be


Comments are closed.