Q & A with Tom Riordan: Chief executive of Leeds Council

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As Leeds recovers from the Christmas floods and braces itself for further economic shocks, chief executive of Leeds Council Tom Riordan talks to New Start about resilience, compassion and trying not to emulate London

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Q: Leeds was hit badly by floods on Boxing Day 2015, impacting on small businesses in particular. What did the crisis show about the resilience of the city?

A: The floods were a huge challenge to us, but out of adversity came this great response. Leeds is interesting as it has a very enterprising culture. I’ve worked in different cities in the north and there’s definitely something about Leeds that is linked to its past as a city of one hundred trades. People gravitate towards it and do things differently here.

There are two things I’ve found interesting about the response to the floods. One is that we set up a fund to help those affected, but have not seen a rush of people seeking money. There is a culture here of just getting on with it. Leeds has not had lots of European money or neighbourhood renewal funds. The response to the floods is part of that self-starting attitude.

Secondly, there is lots to learn from the community spirit that was displayed during the floods. Wherever you sit in the hierarchies of the city – be it in the voluntary, business or public sector – everyone has a role to play.

‘The main thing is we don’t want to mimic

London. We don’t want to be that sort of city’

Q: Leeds was also hit badly during the financial crash of 2008. Do you think the city is more resilient to economic shocks now?

A: The city was hit badly but the strength of the Leeds economy is its diversity. We have the third biggest manufacturing centre in the country and have strong health, digital and creative sectors and an independent food sector is springing up. Despite austerity and other challenges, Leeds has a booming city centre. Burberry recently announced that every trench coat will be made here by 2019, which is a fantastic shot in the arm. They were attracted by our ambition and by our Strong Economy, Compassionate City agenda.

Q: But Leeds is now the most unequal city in the UK outside of London and the city’s success is not reaching out to the poorest communities.

A: This is a big challenge for the city. Inequality is the city’s biggest political priority. We are working with big employers like John Lewis to ensure that the construction work linked to their new store in the city helps those from deprived communities to get training and jobs.

We wrote a paper called Strong Economy, Compassionate City which talks about extending the inequality agenda and ensuring that our economic policy is linked to our anti-poverty work. This approach challenges the ‘growth at all costs’ agenda. The main thing is we don’t want to mimic London. We don’t want to be that sort of city. Our vision is of a north European vision. Where does money end up in pro-growth agenda? In buildings. There’s a sense that buildings are everything and we need to get away from that. It’s about people and what benefits they get from growth. Gross value added (GVA) is a narrow vision and we have introduced a broader basket of indicators to measure the city’s success. GVA is an attractive measure but as long as we use it, others will suffer.

We need to challenge the orthodoxy and look at different ways to measure economic and social progress. There are interesting approaches and more balanced ideas and I’m always happy to challenge Whitehall. Local government has an amazing role to play that is more effective than any pot of money and it’s about recognizing the value of local leadership, which extends beyond the council. Civic leaders are as responsible for the success of Leeds as we are.

We are also working at city region level with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which is doing a number of studies to link anti-poverty work with building a stronger economy in the long term. In particular, they are interested in how the city can create better jobs and how we can work with anchor institutions and big employers on this agenda. There has been a big push on getting more employers to take up the living wage and procurement is changing. The lever is to use our muscle as a council to influence social capital and to help others to do that too.

Clare Goff is editor of New Start magazine
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