Environment Journal met Martin Farrington, Head of City Development at Leeds City Council, at their new offices to discuss regeneration, why HS2 represents value for money to the taxpayer, and the benefits of pedestrianising the city centre.
What has been behind Leeds’ recent growth?
There’s been an overheating of the market in London and Leeds is well placed to pick up on that.
Leeds has always been a commercial city at heart and a manufacturing base. Our core fundamentals are strong.
One of our strengths is our university sectors. The University of Leeds was The Times’ University of the Year. Leeds Arts University is number one in its specialist area, and we have both Leeds Beckett and Leeds Trinity. You’ve got some real strengths there and that’s driving a lot of growth.
Is there too much student accommodation in Leeds City Centre?
There’s a question of balance, but you need to respond to changes in the market. What was acceptable in student accommodation 10 or 20 years ago, isn’t necessarily attractive today. There’s a greater demand for accommodation within a 15-minute walk of the university campuses.
We have a rejuvenated Merrion Centre next to the offices which we are in here, and if you take the Merrion Centre as a retail destination it needs footfall on a consistent basis, and the student population is part of that mix.
One of your biggest projects at the moment is South Bank Leeds, which will double the size of the city centre to the south of the train station. Why is this important for Leeds?
Our city centre has traditionally been focused on the North Bank but with the closure of the Carlsberg/Tetley brewery in 2011 and then the arrival of HS2 coming into that part of the city, it creates a big growth opportunity for that South Bank, which has really taken a step forward with the new southern entrance of the station.
Leeds station is the busiest transport hub in the north of England, so by having an entrance to the south it really opens things up.
It’s created a cascade effect where development opportunities are only a few minutes walk from the train station.
Many people are sceptical about the benefits of HS2. How do you convince the public that the project is worthwhile?
The last time we built a railway line between London and the north was in the mid-Victorian period. The population of the UK has more than doubled since then, and looking ahead 50 years, should we be relying on that infrastructure to provide our transport needs?
My conclusion would be no.
It’s not just Leeds to London but Leeds to Sheffield, Nottingham and Birmingham too, and making that a coherent economic corridor that it isn’t at the moment.
Then you start seeing HS2 as critical long-term infrastructure for the growth of this country.
It’s a big prize but it’s taking place in a city that’s growing in any event. The balancing act for us is maintaining the trajectory of investment that’s already happening, whilst preserving the opportunities that HS2 provides.
It’s been a difficult summer for rail users in the north. Should you be focusing on immediate improvements, such as electrification, rather than HS2?
I don’t think improvements are wholly dependent on electrification. We want to improve capacity, journey time and reliability. That may come through electrification or other means, but if you look at the improvements in the rolling stock, starting in the autumn, we will increase the current Transpennine Express stock from three coaches to five.
The TransPennine Route Upgrade is moving forward which will increase reliability and journey time.
Two large shopping malls (Leeds Trinity & Victoria Gate) have opened in Leeds City Centre in the last five years. Is investing in retail a risky strategy in the current climate?
Leeds has invested £500m in our retail core in the last six or seven years. Trinity works really well because it’s an embedded scheme in the city centre. The streetscape of Trinity naturally fits into the established streetscape of the city.
For Leeds’ size, it does not have a huge quantum of out of city centre retail compared to other cities, and because of this investment, we now have a very strong city centre offer.
The big centres like Leeds, Manchester, Glasgow and Birmingham have been more resilient than the secondary or tertiary locations, and you can see that trend continuing.
Are you happy with the number of new houses being built in Leeds?
In relative terms, Leeds has been strong. We were the third biggest in terms of delivery from local authorities behind Tower Hamlets and Birmingham.
The area that’s been slower has been the city centre market, which is now taking off.
We worked with the owners to bring forward Hunslet Mill for redeveloped, which has been in a semi-derelict state for four decades. That’s showing how, on a challenging Victorian mill, the right developer can bring a scheme forward in a way that’s viable and doesn’t need public sector support.
How do you ensure these new offices at Merrion House represent good value for money for the taxpayer?
We wanted to reduce the number of buildings we occupy whilst facilitating more flexible working and work styles.
We were tied into a 25 years lease on the previous Merrion House building. It was owned by Town Centre Securities, so we cancelled our existing lease with them on the basis that we enter into a new 25 year lease for the existing building, and it would be completely refit and redeveloped.
On the back of that, we’d take a 50% ownership stake in the building, so now we’re 50% landlord, 50% tenants.
It works well because of the considerable savings we make going from 17 buildings to four, and if we chose to sell on the current market we would make a good return on our investment.
What else are you excited about at the moment?
We’re doing a lot of work about public spaces. We have some good quality public realm in the city centre but it’s about building on that, rebalancing the emphasis between the highway and pedestrian space and strengthening the feel of Leeds being a nice city to visit or live or work in.
We’ve done a lot of work in terms of pop-up opportunities. We set up a temporary summer park on Cookridge Street.
Sometimes if you work in a city every day you don’t question things and you just accept that’s the way it is.
Cookridge Street is not a key piece of the highway network so why does so much of the space need to be prioritised to the car?
The pop-up park has got people starting to think about that.
On the first day, people were playing cards on the tables like it had always been there. They’d occupied it in a very natural way. People talk about downgrading the car, I talk about upgrading for pedestrians and turning things on its head.