West Riding House – another story of win/win in Leeds?

West Riding House in Leeds

I met yesterday with a tenant of the ‘affordable’ West Riding House, an iconic 1970s office block in Leeds City Centre, which I believe is owned by Moorfield (a UK ‘real estate’ investor, developer and private equity fund manager, with some £3 billion currently under management) and Holbeck Land .

It caught my eye because several organisations I know have recently moved in, some of whom are extremely cost and value conscious.  The building has become ‘affordable’ because it is cheaper, I am told, for the owner of the building to encourage occupancy at a low rent in order to avoid paying business rates on an unnoccupied building.  A nice win/win.  The owners save a few bob  and the organisations get refurbed office space in the heart of the city centre that usually they could never afford.

Except of course there are losers.

Other landlords (generally owners of more modest estates on the edge of the city and in the doughnut of despair) are losing their rents; the communities in which these organisations used to be based are losing much needed trade.

And the Council are losing out on the rates, presumably.

When, and if, the economy picks up and office space becomes more valuable these new tenants will probably have to move back out or face increased rents.  I just hope that the buildings that they have left behind are still in a reasonable condition.   And if they have fallen into disrepair as resources are sucked from the suburbs into the centre, never mind, perhaps we can negotiate an asset transfer project to bring them back to the community.

I am sure for many tenants the decision to move into West Riding House is a simple, straightforward and commercial one, driven by their business aims and intended social impacts, and their ability to exploit short term notice periods.  For others it must have been a much more difficult judgement.

In these hard times we all have to do what we can to get by.  But we need to understand how the system in Leeds, and every other city, can suck resources into the centre and leave the fringes further marginalised.

Meanwhile Time

All over the city there are similar examples of landlords agreeing low rents that allow ‘unusual suspects’ access to resources that they usually could never afford, to do exciting projects that would probably never get off the ground in better economic times.

The key question for me?

Strategically are these projects just about meanwhile time, merely setting up a low cost ‘holding pattern’ until ‘normal’ levels of economic activity resume?  Or are they ‘hotbeds’ in which we can incubate a generation of new social and cultural entrepreneurs who will help Leeds make a real transformation?  Time will tell of course, although those that own the assets are pretty clear about the ‘meanwhile’ nature of these arrangements.

With the recent Resolution Foundation Report suggesting how the poor have ‘missed out’ on the benefits of economic growth over the last 30 years, I can’t help but think in the medium term, unless we are careful, this is a phenomena in which those that are used to winning will get to win again.

Comments

  1. Mike I am sure you are aware that for many organisations this is a false choice you set out. As they are choosing whether to pay market or pay staff or even pay market or fold altogether. I think the meanwhile use spaces will foster closer collabaration, innovation and cost savings. At the end of the day the economy of both the North and the third sector are taking such a huge hit people are taking what opportunities they can to survive.

    • It is not a false choice Alex, just a very difficult one.

      What I am highlighting here is an apparent systemic problem that all routes lead to the city centre and it takes tremendous courage, innovation, creativity, commitment and enterprise to resist the pull. Does ‘the system’ prevent us from filling say Centenary House (at least that is owned by a Leeds Charity) or Shine, or Hillside? Or perhaps even Unity Business Centre? Or Leeds Media Centre? Technorth? There are so many buildings that need tenants and much of the social enterprise sector chooses to occupy West Riding House? Of course there are many upsides and I hope they do make it work. But let us not forget the buildings in Harehills, Beeston, Holbeck, Burley, Chapeltown and other communities that could really do with tenants and trade. If we can make it work for the multi-billion pound investment funds why can’t we make it work for community owned premises?

      It is in the difficult times that we are tested. Will a sense of solidarity prevail? At what point do we cease to be part of the solution and instead become yet another part of the the problem?

      And the next time someone tells me to ‘Be the change’ I might just whip out a mirror!

      When pragmatism trumps values in the third sector then perhaps we are in trouble.

  2. As one of the new 3rd sector tenants of WRH, I’d struggle with any claims that this scheme equates to pragmatism trumping values. As you point out Mike, it was a difficult decision to give up the security of tenure you get in a normal lease, and we’re well aware that this may turn out to have been a bad decision. But values-wise I’m not going to lose any sleep.

    The council are losing out, that’s true. I guess I’d rather that money was in the third sector than the public sector. I personally think it gets spent better.

    Other landlords in traditionally more affordable parts of the city are losing out, that’s also true. As a long-standing critic of some of the ‘social landlord’ schemes you mention Mike, I’m sure you don’t expect the loyalty of voluntary projects to be with social landlords ahead of their own projects? Most of the people I know who manage small VCFS projects would believe that the money they save on rent in such a scheme could be better spent on the positive social change activities they engage in than by doing their bit to keep Shine going? Shine doesn’t do more towards the progress of the people of Harehills than LASSN does it?

    Let’s be honest about this, those who are used to winning will win again out of this scheme. But so will the VCFS organisations who are not only saving money to make their projects stronger, but who are also building new networks and relationships across the sector through this co-location.

    • I hope you are right Tim. The important thing here is not the individual decisions and their rightness or wrongness but the dynamic that draws things from the inner ring into the city centre and revenue flows with them.

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