14 Sep 2021

New work points the way forward for Leeds's town and city centres in post-pandemic world

Major new research has mapped out a bright future for Leeds’s town and city centres as the local response continues to the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Leeds City Council has in recent months been collaborating with partners on several pieces of work looking at the effect of COVID-19 on our centres and how best to deal with the transformational changes brought about by the crisis.  

The latest findings of the various studies show that Leeds is already doing many things that will power the recovery of both the city centre and smaller town and neighbourhood centres – but will also need to secure additional funds through central government bidding processes to build on the progress made to date.

The findings will go before a meeting of the council’s executive board next Wednesday, September 22, with members set to consider a report by built environment consultancy Arup together with complementary research such as a link-up with social enterprise Ahead Partnership and a public survey.

The new body of work acknowledges that the social and economic impact of the pandemic has raised fundamental questions for cities like Leeds, with some sectors having undergone five normal years of change in less than six months amid a huge acceleration in trends such as remote working and the shift to online retail.

But the papers going before councillors next week also contain significant cause for optimism, highlighting particularly strong city centre footfall at weekends over the summer along with progress on schemes – such as the South Bank’s new Aire Park and the improvements made possible by the £24.3m recently secured for Morley from the Government’s Towns Fund – that will stand the whole Leeds district in good stead for post-pandemic life.

This, in turn, is set against a backdrop of investment in the city from high-profile names such as the UK Infrastructure Bank and tech firm UtterBerry, as well as fresh opportunities for game-changing bids for support from external funding streams. The new work done by the council and its partners is intended to help identify schemes that are capable of winning investment from Government funds such as the Levelling Up Fund, Community Renewal Fund and Towns Fund that will allow Leeds to deliver on its ambitions for the future.

Building on the positive steps already being taken, the meeting is set to hear, will see Leeds moving towards a post-COVID city centre that will be more inclusive, welcoming and engaging, while also adapting smaller, local centres so that they offer new ways of living, working and spending.

Key ideas for Leeds’s future direction of travel that are detailed in the papers going to the executive board include:

  • Ensuring that retail and leisure continues to offer a distinctive set of experiences that cannot be found online, such as the free activities for families – including climbing walls, pop-up sports and a dinosaur-themed trail – that were delivered over the summer through partnership working between the council and the Leeds Business Improvement District (BID);
  • Continuing to capitalise on the city’s rich cultural life, with work well under way on preparations for the Leeds 2023 celebrations and the arts@leeds grant programme already supporting more than 40 cultural, voluntary and community organisations as they deliver engagement opportunities for people across the city;
  • Maintaining a focus on green issues and sustainability, with the ongoing work on Aire Park highlighting the importance of bringing nature into our centres while also seizing the employment and skills opportunities created by the city’s net zero ambitions;
  • Helping employers find the right balance between remote and face-to-face working, with continued demand expected in the city centre for modern, flexible office space that supports collaboration;
  • Encouraging high-quality residential developments and workspaces that will support new ways of living, working and spending in local centres across Leeds, with some evidence that widespread home-working during the pandemic has already led to people spending more money on their own doorsteps. 

The council’s ongoing collaboration with Ahead Partnership, meanwhile, aims to harness the passion and enthusiasm of young people by gathering the views of 11 to 18-year-olds on what they want from their city and local centres and using the results to help guide Leeds’s future plans.

A wealth of information has also been produced by the public survey run by the council in February and March this year, with more than 1,300 responses being received on subjects including future spending habits, use of local centres and the importance of culture and hospitality in attracting people to the city centre.

Executive board members will be asked to approve a series of recommended next steps based on all the work carried out to date. They include:

  • Continuing to identify and deliver transformational projects that offer scope for investment from external funding streams, including those overseen by central government;
  • Providing continued support to businesses affected by the pandemic while also making further assistance available to people who want to access new jobs or skills; 
  • Exploring ways – including the potential use of rates relief – to facilitate co-working space in areas outside the city centre;
  • Encouraging collaboration and experimentation using the findings of a review of Leeds’s innovation district that is being carried out by the council in partnership with institutions such as the University of Leeds, Leeds Beckett University and the Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust.

Councillor Jonathan Pryor, Leeds City Council’s executive member for economy, culture and education, said:

“The COVID-19 pandemic has affected all our lives in ways we could scarcely have imagined 18 months ago, and its impact will be felt for many years to come.

“Given the scale of the changes brought about by the crisis, we need to ensure Leeds is in the best possible place to move forward and bid for the funds that will help us achieve our ambitions, and that’s why we have been collaborating with partners on these important pieces of work.

“The findings mean that – while we are all very much aware of the challenges that still lie ahead – we now have a clearer understanding of how Leeds’s city and local centres can recover from the pandemic in a way that supports our long-standing ambitions for delivering economic competitiveness, skills, health and well-being, inclusive growth and a rich cultural life while also addressing the climate emergency.”

Tom Bridges, Arup director and Leeds office leader, said:

“Leeds city centre is an economic powerhouse and is well placed to drive the city’s recovery from the pandemic. By enhancing its role for innovation, entrepreneurship, learning, culture, housing, retail and leisure it can continue to be a major source of jobs and economic growth in the future.

“Local centres are important hubs for communities, where people come together, work, shop, spend leisure time and access services. People are changing how they work, live and shop – and the centres of our towns and cities will need to adapt post-COVID.”

The various pieces of work being considered by the executive board next week include input from stakeholders such as the Leeds BID, West and North Yorkshire Chamber of Commerce, Leeds Playhouse, Opera North, Voluntary Action Leeds and the West Yorkshire Combined Authority. 

The research follows the launch last year of the council’s Leeds Economic Recovery Framework, which set out a general approach to dealing with the impact of the pandemic based on three themes – respond, reset & renew and build resilience. 


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Leeds City Council Communications team