I am grateful to the very wonderful Emma Bearman (@culturevultures) for sending me a link to a piece in the YEP by Rod McPhee in which he shows just how very simple it should be for the ‘big cigars’ of Leeds to sort out the Clarence Dock Ghostown in their upcoming ‘Summit’. Apparently, ‘we just have to give people a reason to go there’.
Step 1 in the Mcphee masterplan is to significantly reduce the cost of parking in that part of town. So the car park owner takes a financial hit. Or the ‘costs’ are passed onto the tax payer.
Step 2: Get an ‘anchor’ tenant. Find a ‘Harvey Nicks’ equivalent who will take up residence in the Dock and make it a ‘destination’. Does Mr McPhee have any idea how many such developments are chasing so few ‘anchor tenants’ who have the money, the confidence and the brand power to really animate a new development? Anyway – wasn’t this what the Royal Armouries was meant to do? Perhaps we could ‘persuade’ Steve Jobs to open the North’s Premier Apple Store?
Step 3: Sort out the rest of the shops: Cunning plan. Perhaps Borders might like to open up an outlet? Oh! Wait a minute…no….Most retailers are struggling to hang on even in places of high footfall. Expecting them to move into a ghost town on the hope and a prayer that it is about to spark into vibrant commercial life is, well, naive. Some of the early adopters who moved into Clarence Dock from the start have since pulled out as the enterprise fairytale failed to materialise.
Step4: Provide an entertainment complex such as a cinema or concert venue. Smart idea that. Perhaps we could have Leeds Arena 2 please? And put another nail in the coffin of the few remaining independent cinemas in Leeds by bringing in another Vue or Showcase. Yes, lets provide more playthings for the rats who are still running.
Step 5: Provide more facilities for the residents in the 1100 apartments that are down there. Give them more of what they need – on their doorstep to stop them having to trek a whole mile into town. Crikey, we have built them their own private footbridge over the river! Of all of the neighbourhoods in Leeds that don’t have access to good affordable food shops I suspect the residents of Clarence Dock would not come high on the list of priorities. And what sense does it make to reduce footfall and spend in the City Centre just to increase it in the Dock? This is a zero sum game in which we would be robbing Peter to pay Paul.
Step 6:Stage more events – perhaps more markets to drag people in from the suburbs. Well Mr McPhee in case you hadn’t noticed the markets have gone to the suburbs – at least the ones with cash – with popular farmers markets now established in most of Leeds leafy suburbs. Now if we could develop a really impressive arts based market on a scale that would attract people from much further afield.
Whatever happened to the Dark Arches market? Oh yes – it got turned into a car park. And soon we will have another £13.6m thrown at the Dark Arches to provide the elusive residents of Granary Wharf and the not so elusive residents of City Inn a more convenient entrance to the station than our recently refurbished (£4.6m) Neville Street provides.
Step 7: Improve the road signs and make it easier for people to get there. Hm! If there is something there worth visiting the SATNAV and smartphone generation are going to find it Rod. Inadequate signage might be a symptom of sloppy planning – but we are hardly dealing with root causes here.
Step 8: Cater for the office workers. (A point of correction Rod, I don’t think there is a Starbucks there any more. It wasn’t profitable.) There is so much office real estate in Leeds chasing relatively few office workers. We can try to make the place even ‘happier and shinier’ to attract those happy shiny people – but there are simply too many such developments in the City chasing too few employers. And if Clarence Dock did become THE office destination of choice in Leeds – it would be to the detriment of other Leeds sites. Unless of course we do (usually very expensive) deals to lure a large employer from out of the region. But such inward investment rarely sticks. This strategy fuelled growth through the nineties and the early noughties as we lured in financial services, call centres and the associated industries (including the euphemistically titled Gentlemans’ Clubs) but now that times are tough we can expect many of those to move on to pastures cheaper.
Rod says that sorting out Clarence Dock is hardly breaking the enigma code. And following a recipe that says ‘throw money at it’ is indeed hardly rocket science. We could do the same thing with Holbeck Urban Village, Temple Works, Tower Works, Granary Wharf, The Gateway, Wellington Place, Trinity, Velocitude, Lateral, The Mint and Raptor (OK some of those don’t actually exist – but you get my point!). And Mr McPhee, despite £200bn of quantitative easing, there is still little or no money to throw at developments that cannot wash their face. Nor will there be any time soon.
But just suppose for one moment that Mr McPhee got his way. The big cigars decide to sell off some more of the family silver to throw good money after bad….The idiot proof answer to rebooting the Leeds economy is adopted…
More office work/more retail/more entertainment/more consumption? A continued expansion of the rat race. We are hardly looking at the yellow brick road to sustainability are we? Nor are we looking at any realistic strategy for narrowing the gap in this city between the haves and have nots. Instead we build a monetary vacuum cleaner to suck up as much money as possible from the Leeds economy and return it to institutional shareholders and investors based elsewhere. Anyone still got a real appetite for ‘Business as Usual’?
So what is my alternative? What would I do?
Well, I for one would do more, much more to encourage and develop enterprising people like Emma, whose work with Culture Vultures is done on a shoestring but makes a significant contribution to the cultural and economic wellbeing of the city. And Emma is not a rare beast. A magical entrepreneur. She is just a (relatively) normal citizen – doing her bit, following her mojo. There are thousands of people in the city doing remarkable projects, distinctive, creative and imaginative.
Let’s not subsidise the success of the ‘The Man’ in the big commercial (if only they were) developments. Let’s invest in the many thousands of wonderful residents in the city who are actively working to make things better.
But this does approximate rocket science. It is the enigma code. But man HAS been to the Moon. The Enigma Code was cracked. With care, passion, commitment and a tremendous sense of urgency.
It is not a quick, debt driven, electorally popular fix.
But it might just work.