Denial – Not A River Through Leeds

After some recent dramatic outbursts and worrying headlines, there was an attempt in the YEP last week at a more sober analysis of Leeds’ current economic situation by focusing on the fate of Kevin Linfoot – the city property developer whose company, KW Linfoot PLC, rode high on the Leeds Speculative Bubble for a number of years before (inevitably) going into administration when it burst.

Now Tiberius has never been much of a fan of The Blame Game (he prefers Hungry-Hungry Hippos), but he takes issue with the expressed sentiment of the piece that “we’ve all been complicit in turning Leeds into what it is today” and therefore cannot let it pass without comment.

In the piece ‘Why we’re all Linfoots now’ Rod McPhee writes [Tiberius comments]:

“Over the past 15 years, metropolitan Loiners have all been preoccupied with swapping our ham and cheese sandwiches for avocado and rocket ciabattas. We’ve been ditching the Coke for bottles of transportable water poking out of our laptop carriers. And while we’ve all been scurrying around worrying about what to eat, drink and wear, he’s been building our modern city. [which begs the question: who does McPhee think the YEP’s readership actually is!? ]

“For us, the 90s-Noughties transition was all about strategically pulling our jeans down and our Calvin Kleins up and fiddling around with our iPods. For him [Linfoot], it was about putting up the city’s tallest building, constructing a third of all city-living apartments [a significant number of which are probably empty] and planning our first skyscraper. [which is never going to be built; if Tiberius had spent the last  year planning the city’s first Escalator To The Moon should he still be given credit when his plans are scuppered by reality? ]

“But essentially he and we have all been about the same thing – we’ve all been creating a new lifestyle for Leeds. That sounds naff but let’s be honest, that’s what we all want, isn’t it? (Even those pseudo-cynics who profess to hate the Starbucks corporate hijacking of our high streets – the ones you’ll catch guiltily sipping a machiato with whipped cream and cinammon sprinkle?) [well it depends very much on what the ‘new lifestyle’ means in practice- who gets to define it, who benefits from it and who doesn’t, and whether it is sustainable or not.]

“I believe that at the heart of the Linfoot empire was a genuine desire, not just to garner prestige, money and power, but to create a better city. [maybe so; but, as a developer, Linfoot is probably all too aware of the fragility of structures built solely with good intentions]

“Some would dismiss this. They’d argue that he had it coming, that KW Linfoot going into administration was just desserts. The truth is that a lot of people still don’t like a winner, or only like a winner when they’ve lost everything. [!]

“But his loss is our loss. We’ve all been complicit in turning Leeds into what it is today – and we can’t really attack Linfoot as some kind of over-ambitious mogul forcing his ego on our skyline. Everyone in this city bought into aspiration – he just did it on a bigger scale.”

While it’s undeniably true that most in this city “bought into aspiration” (or the Linfoot/McPhee version thereof) there were others who issued warnings that such ‘aspiration’ was, in the long-term, unsustainable.

Two such “pseudo-cynics” were Leeds University’s very own Stuart Hodkinson and Paul Chatterton, who, back in the Summer 2007 issue of The Yorkshire and Humberside Regional Review, expressed their “concerns about the long-term viability of the city centre residential market” in a provocatively-titled article “Leeds: an affordable, viable, sustainable, democratic city?”. In it, the pair explained that:

“Evidence suggests that the planned major expansion in city living apartments is riding more on the crest of a speculative boom than an effective long-term demand.

“Although it is difficult to get an exact picture, selected evidence suggests that many of the city’s new apartments lie empty and never used, and property agents admit that the market has already reached a glut in supply with difficulties in letting. With at least 111,800 additional units potentially coming on stream in the coming years, where the demand will come from remains a vexing issue.

This is extremely worrying given how important residential development and property is to the city’s economy. More worrying still, regeneration-led growth largely predicated on a city centre property speculation boom that might eventually burst, and which is predicted on external capital, poses considerable economic blowback effects to the rest of the city and its region.

Hodkinson, S & Chatterton, P (2007), ‘Leeds: an affordable, viable, sustainable, democratic city?’, The Yorkshire and Humber Regional Review, Vol 17: 2, pp.24-26, Summer [Italics added by Tiberius]

They end with the cautionary note:

“Pursuing the current path, it is not likely that Leeds will increase its credentials as an affordable, sustainable, viable or democratic city.”

This warning was not completely ignored by the local corporate media. In his 9th June 2007 piece ‘Warning of skyscrapers threat to cities’ future’, the Yorkshire Post Political Correspondent Tom Smithard gives a lot of space to the Hodkinson/Chatterton article and includes a supporting perspective from (Rod McPhee’s least-favourite) former chairman of the Royal Institute of British Architects, Maxwell Hutchinson.

Smithard also noted a report from Leeds-based researchers Ecote, who, after two months spent “interviewing city-centre residents and regeneration professionals amid fears that the urban renaissance is about to collapse”,  concluded that “city centre apartments, often designed with investors in mind, are too small for people to ‘mature into'”.

The only rebuttal (such as it was) offered to all this was by  “Leeds’s principal architect” John Thorp. In it, however, he failed to address the substantive issue of the Hodkinson/Chatterton analysis (expansion in city living apartments is riding more on the crest of a speculative boom than an effective long-term demand) and instead focused on the relatively smaller problem of the lack of facilities around the new developments.

But, despite the warning signs, the advice of Hodkinson, Chatterton, and others was not heeded (as if you, Weary Surfer, need reminding); fast-forward eighteen months to a Leeds that is fast becoming a city of  abandoned building sites, half-empty developments, and un-let offices; destined, it seems, to be know to future generations as the ‘City That Hubris Half-Built (And No One Wanted to Live In)’.

In summary, Tiberius believes that those who try to rationalise the city’s mistakes with the false claims that ‘no one could have seen this coming’ or ‘we’re all guilty’  are themselves guilty of being either misinformed or deliberately evasive.

It is important to acknowledge that those who have spent the last few years trying to alert this city to a few inconvenient truths were not doing so from a desire to be the killjoy; rather they were people who had genuine concerns based on legitmate reasoning. They were by-and-large ignored by a city drunk on the idea of its own success and in denail about who was going to have to pick up the tab. No one likes a party-pooper, but lets not pretend they didn’t exist or that the party shouldn’t have been poop-ed a long time ago.

Once we have done this, we can go on to ask how they knew and (more importantly) what we should have done differently. For, as the saying goes,  “those who don’t learn from history will be condemned to repeat it” – and Tiberius, for one,  doesn’t want to sit through all those episodes of Property Ladder again.

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