After the floods: How resilient is Leeds?
Leeds is getting back on its feet after being hit by floods during the Christmas period, but what can the crisis teach the city about its levels of community and economic resilience?
‘Never let a good crisis go to waste,’ said Winston Churchill. When Storm Eva hit Leeds on Christmas Day 2015, causing the River Aire to break its banks, the city’s communities came out in force.
On Kirkstall Road, a city centre artery that was badly affected by the flooding, local councillor Lucinda Yeadon and Phil Marken, who runs Open Source Arts, separately began mobilising a clean-up.
From one end of the road, councillor Yeadon used social media and her contacts at the council to organise volunteers and the resources of the public sector. At the other end Phil Marken – having returned from his Christmas break to find his new warehouse flooded – set up a base for the clean up operation from its mezzanine. The two met in the middle and soon hordes of volunteers were spending their Christmas break clearing out mud from shops, pubs and roads, fuelled by donated food. The volunteer support and donations of equipment helped local businesses get back up and running quickly, and unleashed a wave of solidarity across the city. One shop owner in an unaffected part of the city offered a new home to the snakes and other reptiles that were left homeless when a pet shop – Tyrannosaurus Pets – was flooded.
‘We need new institutions that are so effective
that the traditional ones are forced to give space’
The local newspaper called the response ‘defiant’, and it was one that combined the can-do attitude of its citizens with a strong – and flexible – local state.
As councillor Yeadon said the ‘flood waters washed council bureaucracy away for a few weeks’, helping volunteers and the state work together in partnership.
As the waters rose, citizens stepped into leadership roles in their neighbourhoods, enabled by the council. But as the floodwaters retreat, will power return to the same channels? Can the city use the crisis to build on the spirit it generated and challenge the status quo?
This month a group of people from the community, public, small business and university sectors in the city met at a CLES, New Start and NEF event to discuss what the response to the Christmas floods says about the city’s resilience levels. The crisis may have revealed the strengths of the city but can the solidarity and partnership working be maintained?
Building a civic ‘middle’
As cities become subject to shocks – be they economic, social or climate-related – there is an increased focus on assessing their levels of resilience. The Centre for Local Economic Strategies has developed a place resilience framework to help local areas understand their strengths and weaknesses and help them navigate change, whether that change is due to public sector cuts, demographic shifts or environmental uncertainties.
It could be argued that an area’s ability to be ‘change ready’ says much more about that place’s success than do traditional measures, such as GVA growth, and in CLES’s resilience framework, economic development is blended with and inseparable from ‘softer’ policies such as community empowerment and participation and environmental sustainability. Resilience at its essence is about recognizing the inter-connectedness of a place and the importance within that place of connections and relationships, between the public, private and social sectors.
Thus, cities that are dependent for their economic success on a single industry or isolated private sector activity are more vulnerable than those that have many trades, interlinked supply chains, strong public/social partnerships, and high levels of community ownership.
Leeds was once known as the city of a hundred trades and is a significant financial hub and shopping destination, as well as the UK’s third biggest manufacturing centre. But, despite its diversity, it contracted sharply during the 2008 recession, with the number of jobs falling by 22,900 between 2008 and 2011.
While parts of the city’s economy have bounced back, its recovery is not being spread evenly. While GVA per worker reached £43,000 in 2011, above the core city average, that overall figure masks the city’s growing inequality.
Figures from the Centre for Cities City Outlook report of 2015 showed that Leeds was the most unequal city in the UK outside of London, with 15% unemployment in some areas. The Leeds Community Foundation puts the level of child poverty in the city at 23% – around 30,000 children.
Mark Law, chief executive of Barca, described the city’s success as mushroom-shaped, with the benefits flowing through the centre and the outer suburbs and missing out inner city areas. As David Boyle argues in this edition, the economic success of the city has entrenched its poverty levels.
Leeds council has not ducked from the challenges of inequality the city faces; its partnership with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation around inclusive growth in the Leeds city region, and its civic enterprise and Strong Economy, Compassionate City agendas are admirable. Chief executive of the council Tom Riordan told New Start, ‘the main thing is we don’t want to mimic London. We don’t want to be that sort of city’.
But for many in the city a step change is needed. They want to see the power of big business tamed and the city’s wealth creators take on greater responsibility. And they want to build new mechanisms for people and communities to have greater control over what happens in their city.
Delegates at the event spoke of the lack of a ‘middle’ in the city and the need for stronger and more participative civic institutions to create the structural changes needed around transport and connectivity, low carbon projects, better jobs and greater equality.
‘We need civic institutions that are of a parallel thickness to those of the state and big business. We need institutions that are so effective that the traditional are forced to give space – a strong local state but with social democracy behind it.’
Resilience begins with relationships
It’s a challenge that all cities face as the power of local authorities is weakened and citizens demand greater control over their own and their city’s destiny. As the devolution agenda continues apace, civil society has mostly been left out of the picture. Local enterprise partnerships and other local boards are rarely representative of the diversity of a city.
Leeds has never been as reliant on public funding as some neighbouring northern cities, which perhaps accounts for its active community sector, high levels of small enterprise and the can-do attitude of its citizens. But the gap between the people-powered economy – from its consortium of development trusts to its activist green scene and its burgeoning start-up sector – and those that make decisions is stark.
Mechanisms are needed that allow people from all sectors to get involved in the long term future of their city, and to build relationships of understanding between citizens, the state and business that go beyond tokenistic ‘dances’ with the council or superficial CSR contracts.
‘The gap between the city’s people-powered
economy and those that make decisions is stark’
Sometimes it takes a crisis to build those links: the relationships formed during the floods are continuing, with Kirkstall Clean-up now rebranded as Team Kirkstall and continuing to play the role of catalyzer in the local area. Local businesses that united during the floods are now more networked.
More often, a broker is needed to unite different sides. The Leeds Poverty Truth Commission brings civic and business leaders together with local citizens with knowledge of poverty to challenge stigma and build understanding.
Through those relationships, changes to services have been made and new partnerships formed, with one civic leader in Leeds saying during the launch event, ‘If we had 10% of the togetherness of the Poverty Truth Commission, Leeds would be different.’
Social Business Brokers – a local social enterprise – brings people from different sectors together to solve entrenched social problems, on the understanding that issues such as empty homes can’t be tackled by one organisation.
And a number of mechanisms for greater discussion about how the city works are springing up. Leeds City Lab is aiming to bring different sectors of the city together and create pockets of experimentation, and the Leeds Open Data Institute is using big data and digital technology to help the city find new ways to understand and deal with its problems.
Funding the ‘middle’
The missing link in building a stronger ‘middle’, however, is funding. For a city that has been described as a monolith to money it needs to find new ways to help that money circulate more evenly.
Delegates at the event discussed the need for greater transparency over public funds in the city, in particular information about how the community infrastructure levy is being spent. Could participatory budgeting be introduced to allow citizens a greater say over what is spent?
They also considered the options for new forms of finance. Leeds was one of the first to dip its toes into new community finance mechanisms, using a community shares issue to help the Headingley Development Trust buy a former school and a shop on the local high street to hold back its takeover by corporates.
Leeds also has one of the UK’s most innovative philanthropic organisations – Leeds Community Foundation. It played a key role in the floods relief and is soon to launch the Leeds Fund, which it hopes will create a new channel for conversations around the needs of the city.
Chief executive Sally-Anne Greenfield said greater connectivity is needed to help those with the great ideas in local areas be joined up with and speaking the same language as those with money. ‘We see our role increasingly as doing the matchmaking to show what needs to be done in the city and help those groups who are coming up with solutions.’
Building the strength of the weakest
The floods have shaken the city out of its slumber, revealing its strengths but also its vulnerabilities. More shocks are coming, as economic uncertainty and climactic unpredictability continue.
The response to the floods showed the power of human capital and of local social networks when they unite around a common cause. It proved that the state and its people and its business sector can work in partnership for the greater good of the city.
Rachel Unsworth in a paper called Margins Within The City explored the potential to re-think how one of the city’s poorest communities – Richmond Hill – could work better by understanding and unlocking its under-recognised skills, networks and assets. Its conclusion could relate to any of the city’s communities: ‘Richmond Hill has the skills to organize and create a stronger local economy but it does require help in the form of enabling and capacity building. This could be provided by the local authority at a much lower cost and generate much greater long term benefits than have been achieved by the regeneration strategies of the last 15 years.’
Leeds has everything that it needs – strong business, a thoughtful public sector and active communities – but can it bring these assets together to build a more equal city?
For as one of its famous citizens Zygmunt Bauman said: ‘The carrying power of a bridge is not the average strength of the pillars, but the strength of the weakest pillar. I have always believed that you do not measure the health of a society by GDP but by the condition of its worst off.’