The Leeds City Centre Vision Conference yesterday was quite a shebang. Several hundred people with an ‘interest’ in the future of the city centre convened by the council and a raft of property developers and land owners down at Clarence Dock.
And one of the main narratives? We need a hero. A mayor perhaps. Or a ‘captain of industry’. Someone who can bang heads together, make things happen, drive through a vision and ‘bring communities with them’. We need to concentrate power in a paternalistic figurehead who will lead us to the promised land where ‘Retail is the New Leisure’ and even poor communities are ‘needle free’.
Someone who we can depend on.
This has been the recent history of the relationship between ‘the leadership’ and ‘the led’ in Leeds for as long as I can remember. Communities are things to be ‘brought with us’ (“we are of course doing this for them too – just think of the wonderful job opportunities that the Arena will bring to Little London – all those ‘high grade concierge skills we are going to needs to realise our profits…”).
‘Innovate and collaborate’ they say. ‘Proper partnerships!’ they cry.
So here is an innovative idea.
As well as being bedfellows with the developers, become reliable and consistent allies of communities and the people who live in this city. Stop seeing them as things to be managed or fixed. Listen to them, engage with them and above all support them, invest in them, and strengthen their capacity to build their futures in the way that they want. Engage with them on their agendas. And then just perhaps they might show some interest in engaging with you on yours.
We may need another River Island/Top Shop and a cinema chain from ‘that London’ to maintain our mid-table position in the list of medium sized mediocrities of European Cities (did I actually see that chart at some point yesterday?), but investing £1.25bn in shopping centres and arenas is not going to make this city a more beautiful place for all who choose to make their lives here. Indeed I suspect it will only serve to increase inequality in the city.
I am not against the world of structural, top down, strategic regeneration.
Of course we need good top down planning and excellent infrastructure. We already have a pretty good infrastructure for developing the city. Just look at what has been achieved in the last 30 years. The physical infrastructure of the city has been transformed. My challenge is that this is necessary but not sufficient. We also need many more of the 750 000 people that live here to be actively engaged in making and shaping their own futures. Learning to collaborate and associate in the pursuit of their own progress. Not relying on a hero to make things better but doing it for themselves.
Because we have been waiting for a hero for a long time now. And if one does comes along (no doubt fresh from ‘some other fight’) I am far from convinced that it will result in a fairytale ending.
And within minutes of the opening of the conference I found myself writing out this lyric, that so often comes to mind when I hear the powerful talking about their plans to help the powerless….
In the second city of the Empire
Mother Glasgow nurses all her weans
Trying hard to feed her little starlings
Unconsciously she clips their little wings
Among the flightless birds and sightless starlings
Father Glasgow knows his starlings well
He won’t make his own way up to heaven
By waltzing all his charges in to hell
Let Glasgow Flourish!