What If Leeds was a ‘tax-take opportunity’ for Whitehall?

John Baron over at the Guardian Leeds site recently published a quite remarkable dialogue between our new Council Chief Executive, Tom Riordan and elected councillors.  It is a tremendous piece.  It is the kind of openness and transparency that I think offers real hope for progress.  Tom, John and the Councillors involved are I think to be commended.
But it was just 2 sentences from the piece, which I recommend you read in full, that really caught my eye.
We have to convince the people in Whitehall that Leeds is a tax-take opportunity for them if all the jobs we aim to create up here come off.
If we’re going to grow the economy we need the Environment Agency’s new flood defences, we need the Leeds trolleybus scheme, we need our LEP to be the best in the country. – Tom Riordan, Leeds City Council CEO, as reported in the Guardian Leeds
2 short sentences that tell a powerful story.  An every day story of top down strategy.
We have to persuade Whitehall that we are a ‘tax-take’ opportunity to secure the investment needed to create jobs.  Because jobs depend on us getting large infrastructure projects such as trolley busses and flood defences.  And these depend on investment by Whitehall.
It also depends on us having a really smart Local Enterprise Partnership, a group of ‘the anointed‘ who will take decisions and make investments (if they have any money) that will lead to increased gross domestic product in the city.  It will be up to them to realise the city as a ‘tax-take’ opportunity for Whitehall; as an efficient driver of profits for people with the capital to invest.
A compelling story perhaps, but not the only story.  It is a story based on our deficits.  The things that we have not got.
Might there be some other stories we could explore?
What if we imagined that ‘growing the economy’ (or indeed a bolder and braver vision of developing sustainable communities; economically, culturally and socially) depended not on trolley buses, LEPS and flood defences, but on us engaging the intelligence, passion, creativity, aspirations and dreams of the people who live in the city and supporting and networking them to create real power to the create sustainable communities in which more people felt both valued and supported?
We could call this story ‘grassroots, bottom-up and responsive’.  Or ‘person centred’.  Holistic perhaps as it would integrate economy. society and culture.  This is a story that is based on our current assets, the things we already have and how we make the very best of them.  And, no less true for being a cliché, ‘people are our greatest asset’.
Both stories are valid.  Both have truth in them.  Both are necessary.  And I believe that Tom is interested in developing both, even though in this piece only the more dominant current narrative about physical infrastructure gets an airing.
Only one of these narrative receives massive investments of time and money, requires massive budgets and leaves most of us pretty much uninvolved and powerless spectators.
One receives almost no investment by comparison, requires very modest investment and would engage and develop all who wanted to be engaged in creating the future that they want for themselves and their community.
One of them has powerful interests behind it, with deep pockets and powerful connections who can manage and lead discussions in the city.  One of them has no such powerful ‘leadership’.
One of them will primarily serve the wealthy and powerful, relying on trickle down, philanthropy, social mobility, and taxation to re-distribute wealth.  One of them will promote social justice and inclusion.
Now both narratives are necessary.  Of course we need the right infrastructure.  Of course we need good strategy.  Of course we need powerful advocates who can fight our corner in Whitehall and beyond.  But this is only part of the story.  Both ‘strategic’ and ‘responsive’ narratives must be developed and resourced if the city is to move forward in a way that is sustainable, economically, culturally and socially.
‘Responsive’ and ‘strategic’ are the yin and yang of balanced progress.
And if you need any convincing that perhaps the balance is not yet properly struck in Leeds just explore this conference coming up to discuss the future of Leeds City Centre.  Look at who sponsors it?
Attendance at the conference is free.  So I would urge you to attend and make sure that your voice gets heard.  It is the only way that we can find out if anyone is REALLY listening.
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
- Theodore Parker/Martin Luther King

Comments

  1. None of these local economy boosting schemes seem to get the green light. Okay, so we got Leeds Inner Ring Road Stage 7 and East Leeds Link Road, but those schemes had been around for 20 years. Leeds Supertram would have given Leeds a major boost, but after millions being spent on advance works and fees, it didn’t get funding approval. The trolleybus is going the same way and with the recession, it looks unlikely that many schemes will get approval for the coming years. However, the high speed rail link from London to Leeds sounds good for the economy.

    When these schemes can show a First Year Rate of Return in excess of 2-3 times their cost, then they obviously give the economy a boost.

  2. Mike

    Are you one of the cities entitled to a mayor ?

    There is another way. What if local government and regions were able to raise money – sales taxes, land taxes, development and all the rest ?

    Perhaps if the tax powers split between centre and outlyers was fairer, you would not have to describe yourselves as a “tax take opportunity” for someone else.

    USA and France – I think they have higher local tax revenues. They may not use them any more wisely !

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