Surrealism is Alive and Well and Living in Leeds

I had an eventful afternoon yesterday.  In order to vote I had to pop into electoral services in the Town Hall as my postal vote had failed to materialise.  A polite, efficient, helpful and very professional service. Well done to the electoral services team at the council.

Vote registered I then visited a fantastic project in Hunslet called Involve led by Kris Clayden.  Based in the old Salvation Army building – which is a bit of a 1970s concrete carbuncle – Kris and his team provide a service to young people from South Leeds who have been permanently excluded from school.

Delivered on a shoe string, through a cocktail of short term funding, working with some of the most challenging young people in Leeds, based in a building that is far from fit for purpose but doing an important job with passion and vigour.  It took me back to my time of working with children in residential care.  You learn a lot in these environments.

My next engagement was for the launch of the Leeds City Workshop.  This is the product of a collaboration between Leeds City Council and one of the major property developers in the city to provide a physical space where planners can engage with communities and developers to discuss plans for the physical regeneration of the city.

The Leeds City Workshop occupies a part of the Wellington Street Marketing Centre where the city developers promote their latest residential, retail and industrial plans to well-heeled entrepreneurs and investors.

On arrival we were served with wine and lime and lemongrass cordial while a string quartet played Bach.  The canapes reflected the tough times in the city – mini shepherds pies, chicken kebabs, crab cakes and and bruschetta.  The patio was hardly sun drenched, but the re-assuring crunch of astroturf underfoot and the views across the city were sublime.

One of the proerty developers who had kindly provided the workshop space, in their Marketing Suite, (three enormous shipping containers sliced, diced and welded together) opened the speeches.  He talked of tough times, but work on physical development of the city goes on.  He  told us how they work all over the country – but no-where else is doing city place shaping work quite as well as Leeds.  Then a council official talking about the significant progress that has been made on the physical development of the city.  How, where development projects are put on hold, they are working hard with developers to put interesting temporary projects in place – seeding lawns, marking out football pitches etc.  How work on the arena will start soon and be completed in 2012.  There si only one small problem – we ‘just’ need a planning permission.  Luckily the head of planning  permissions in the city was in the room – so I am sure that will not be a major problem.

All very impressive.

Then downstairs to see the actual workshop where the planning conversations are taking place.  Without doubt they have created an impressive space.  A square table for 22 people surrounded by high walls draped with impressive and colourful plans of the city.  Acoustics professionally engineered and a state of the art audio visual system showing a film of the future Leeds with the city’s golden owl acting as winged guide from one planning triumph to the next.

This workshop is to be the base for John Thorp, the City Architect and his team to provide them with a more conducive environment for planning than the mundane facilities provided by the council.   Leeds city planners  co-located with and, in part, resourced by the developers – it reminded me of Our Friends in the North.

John seemed much taken by some ‘new’ technology that he heard about.  Some kind of graphics tablets that meant he could draw images directly onto the audio visual system.  No more climbing up ladders balancing felt tip pens and tippex!  Try the Wacom Cintiq John I think you might love it.

The contrast between these two experiences was surreal.  Kris in his 1970s carbuncle in Hunslet and John and the developers in their architect designed and styled acoustically engineered palace in the city with Bach and canapes.

One couldn’t help but feel that somewhere we had not quite the balance right between investing in local people and investing in physical infrastructure.

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