Leeds seeks cash and kudos by joining European culture club

What do playwright Alan Bennett, author Helen Fielding, artist John Atkinson Grimshaw, poet Tony Harrison, actor Peter O’Toole and TV presenter Jeremy Paxman have in common?

They were all born in Leeds. The list of cultural heavyweights who originate from the city is diverse and seemingly endless: Keith Waterhouse, Damien Hirst, Tom Wilkinson, Leigh Francis (aka Avid Merrion) - I could go on. The point is that few UK regional cities boast as rich a cultural history as Leeds. And that’s why the West Yorkshire city has thrown its hat in the ring to be crowned the 2023 European Capital of Culture.

The Leeds bid team intends to celebrate the city’s status as a global cultural leader. At the official London launch earlier this year, it unveiled a series of heavyweight backers, including writer and critic Melvyn Bragg, singer Corinne Bailey Rae and local rockers the Kaiser Chiefs.

But what benefits will the city derive from being European Capital of Culture, what are the potential upsides for the local property market and do these benefits outweigh the time and expense associated with putting together a bid?

It’s fair to say that the excitement at the prospect of becoming a European Capital of Culture is not shared by all. Indeed, questions remain over whether the EU will allow a UK city to host the event post Brexit.

Having said that, cities in countries outside the EU have been appointed in the past and the Department for Culture, Media & Sport, which launched the competition to find a UK host city late last year, appears to be confident that the UK will be granted Capital of Culture status in 2023.

Deadline nears

Initial proposals by the bid cities must be submitted to the department this month and a decision on the winner is expected by next Easter, with the EU ratifying this decision before the UK leaves the union in 2019.

Several other UK cities have already stated their intention to bid, including Nottingham, Dundee and Milton Keynes. The reason they’re all so keen to host the event is threefold: it brings increased investment, it helps to create jobs and it boosts the local economy.

You only need to look at the seismic impact that European Capital of Culture status had on Liverpool in 2008. It is estimated that the city’s economy benefited to the tune of more than £750m and a poll of residents after the event showed an 85% increase in satisfaction when asked whether they liked living in the city.

Leeds is expected to similarly benefit if it wins the title. Judith Blake, leader of Leeds City Council, says City of Culture status would “shine a light on the city” and the wider Yorkshire region.

A successful bid will create a lasting legacy and provide a catalyst for growth and development - Judith Blake, Leeds City Council

“We believe that a successful bid will create a lasting legacy, attract national and international funding and provide a step-change in tourism and a catalyst for growth and development in the city,” she says, adding that Leeds has already enjoyed “great benefits” since announcing its intention to bid, including “an enhanced national and international profile; increased international collaborations with partners from Lille, Dortmund, Galway, Aarhus, Liverpool and Hull; increased private sector investment for culture; alongside the city council’s commitment to maintain its current £2m arts grants budget for the next four years - this type of continued investment will highlight Leeds’ potential and create a stage for the city to showcase the many opportunities it has”.

The city council’s hierarchy hopes that a successful bid will also attract inward investment to Leeds and act as a catalyst for other projects to go ahead, including regeneration of the city’s South Bank, which is one of the largest development areas of its type in Europe.

New transport hub

“Plans for the area will see the city centre double in size, with the capacity to create up to 35,000 new employment opportunities [and] more new homes. The area will also create a new transport hub for the proposed HS2 scheme,” says Blake.

In addition, the plans for the South Bank will create a new city park, providing much-needed green space and connective infrastructure.”

She hopes that the city park, which will be surrounded by a range of creative and education establishments, will become a thriving hub of activity and provide a link back into the city centre.

“This vast brownfield development will reconnect the city centre with our residential communities in the south and offers an opportunity, as part of our European Capital of Culture bid, to provide an international blueprint for how cities can successfully transition from industrial powerhouses to the creative and digital jobs of the future, with culture playing a central role in these changes and in future placemaking.

“This is the time for Leeds to enhance its offering to attract national and international visitors. The European Capital of Culture title will provide the impetus for the city to move forward, increasing tourism and inward investment.”

The bid presents an opportunity to maximise on the increased tourism - Edward Ziff, TCS

One group that is well placed to benefit from a successful bid is hoteliers. Research by the council suggests the city would need 2,656 more beds to accommodate the projected growth in tourist visitors to Leeds. To meet this, there are 23 new hotels in the pipeline.

Town Centre Securities (TCS), one of the city’s major property players, is confident it will capitalise if Leeds wins the bid.

“We know the bid presents an opportunity to maximise on the increased tourism and this year we opened a 134-bedroom ibis Styles hotel within the Merrion Centre and developed the Premier Inn on Whitehall Road,” says Edward Ziff, chairman and chief executive of TCS. “Both sites are sure to benefit from the increased attraction the bid will inevitably bring.”

He adds that since the city announced its intention to bid for Capital of Culture status, he has noticed an increase in visitor numbers. The Merrion Centre alone welcomed 11.6 million shoppers - equivalent to 4% growth - through its doors in 2016.

Exciting time

“It’s an incredibly exciting time for Leeds,” says Ziff. “Its bid for the European Capital of Culture 2023 is set to bring a wide array of stakeholders and sectors within Leeds together and generate a host of inward investment. We certainly have plans to continue to increase our investment in the city as we expect to see a rise in tourism and interest around what Leeds has to offer.

“In 2016 alone, 2.27 million people stayed in Leeds for leisure purposes, which equated to an economic impact of £518m and the added profile generated by the Leeds 2023 bid is only expected to see these figures increase.”

TCS isn’t the only member of the local business community to back the bid. The likes of Turner & Townsend, Bruntwood, Leeds Business Improvement District, Welcome to Yorkshire and Leeds Bradford Airport are all supporting the city’s efforts. If the bid is successful, it will benefit the whole property sector, says Steve Henderson, director of in-town retail at Savills’ Leeds office.

“I’ve been involved with a scheme in Hull, which is the current UK City of Culture, and we’ve certainly seen a lot more investment activity around the city and that development drag will carry on beyond this year,” says Henderson.

As well as investor perception of Leeds improving as a result of the city being given a wider European platform, he thinks that retail landlords and tenants will reap the rewards if the city is granted host status in 2023.

“In Liverpool there was a big spike in trade over the Capital of Culture period,” says Henderson. “And when London hosted the Olympic Games in 2012 quite a few retailers that weren’t represented spent money on pop-up stores just to get a presence in the area.”

Public sector investment

Although he doubts retailers will commit to leases more than five years out, he predicts a flurry of occupier activity nearer the time should the city be successful. He also thinks the city will benefit from significant public sector investment, which will have a long-lasting impact on Leeds.

“If the city is awarded it they are going to have to spend a lot of money in terms of transport infrastructure,” Henderson says. “And they wouldn’t be able to not build the [long-proposed new] tram system if they win the bid.”

If the city is awarded it they are going to have to spend a lot of money in terms of transport infrastructure - Steve Henderson, Savills

The potential economic upsides to Leeds’ bid being successful present a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the city. The wider region has already benefited from its growing association with cycling races thanks to the Tour de France choosing Yorkshire for its Grand Départ in 2014, which generated about £130m for the area.

The Tour de Yorkshire cycle race, which started in 2015 and this year boosted the local economy by almost £64m, has also helped to put major Yorkshire cities such as Leeds on the map.

But these figures pale into insignificance compared with the potential rewards on offer should the city win its bid to become 2023 European Capital of Culture, which is why residents and the local business community will be on tenterhooks when the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport, as it is now called, finally announces its nomination for the host city.

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