Supporting communities in the age of austerity

One of the most effective ways to counterbalance austerity is through a strong and thriving visitor economy fuelled by a programme exciting, world class, international events. Councillor Judith Blake, leader of Leeds City Council, explains how the region is meeting increasing challenges with courage, optimism and innovation

There can be little doubt that the last few years have been among the most challenging periods in living memory for local government. Financially, we have been, and continue to be, under more pressure than ever before and we’re faced with making the types of decisions those of us who have worked in local government for many years never believed we’d have to consider.

In Leeds, these unprecedented changes to our financial landscape have seen a further reduction in our budget of £25 million this past year on top of £214 million already cut in the council’s core funding from government since 2010 - all at a time when we are seeing increased demand for services from our residents.

Our first priority during this time has of course been to minimise the impact on front line services as we attempt to adjust and make savings, which has required an incredible amount of creativity and imagination from those still working to provide the best quality services possible for the people of Leeds.

Our approach to meeting these challenges head on has been a programme of organisational change which has seen us deliver a variety of savings, including staff reductions of 2,500 since 2010 without compulsory redundancy, an annual saving in the cost of waste disposal of approximately £7 million following the completion of a new Recycling and Energy Recovery plant in 2015 and more effective working with city partners to maximise the impact of the ‘Leeds Pound’ by encouraging local money to be invested locally.

By taking these tough decisions, we’ve mitigrated the negative impact on our communities as much as we’re able, but we are bracing ourselves for the very real prospects of further funding reductions in future with, quite frankly, little or no fat left to trim. Nevertheless, we remain resolute in our determination to support our communities and to be a city with a strong, resilient economy which is prepared to stand up to the testing times to come.

Encouraging an outward-looking approach
Against this kind of grim financial backdrop, there is an understandable temptation for cities to narrow their focus when looking for ways to bolster their resilience, fostering somewhat of a siege mentality in an effort to weather the storm. But in Leeds we firmly believe that doing that would risk us becoming isolated and unambitious and that one of the most effective ways to counterbalance austerity is through a strong and thriving visitor economy fuelled by a programme exciting, world class, international events.

After hosting the Grand Depart of the Tour de France in 2014, we were struck not only by the incredible sporting legacy the event left behind, but also by the extraordinary way it boosted the profile of Leeds and Yorkshire, resulting in a massive surge in visitor numbers. Figures from Visit England showed visitor spend in Yorkshire was up by 45 per cent in the 12 months following the event, with almost 25 per cent more people coming to the county. Evaluations carried out before, during and after the race showed it generated an estimated £102 million for Yorkshire and was watched by a total crowd of 4.8 million.

That scale of positivity and excitement can have a tremendous knock-on effect on business and consumer confidence and is something we have worked to build on ever since as pressure on our own budgets have continued to grow and the need for inward investment increases in kind. Since 2014, the city has hosted a string of major events including the Columbia Threadneedle World Triathlon Series in June, where our own Brownlee brothers took Gold and Silver in front of crowds of more than 50,000 fans. The direct spend from people coming to Leeds to watch the event was at least £1.2 million, with Leeds once again being showcased live to a watching audience all over the world and we’ll be hosting the event once again next year with similar crowds expected.

The council has also always been an enthusiastic supporter of the magnificent Leeds West Indian Carnival, which has been celebrating in the streets from half a century, attracting in excess of 80,000 people to the city each year, and this year we were proud to be part of the event’s 50th anniversary. We have just hosted the MOBO awards for the second time in our history at the first direct area, our annual Light Night arts and light festival in October continues to grow each and every year and the city also holds a diverse programme of events celebrating different communities including Leeds Pride and the annual St Patrick’s Day parade.

As a city, Leeds has also shared the success of the opening of Victoria Gate, which holds the accolade of Best Shopping Centre in the World after being awarded the title at MIPIM in October 2016 and has seen Leeds currently ranking as the third best place to shop in the UK. By continuing to invest in and encourage a unique programme of events, we’re seeing real, tangible benefits to our local economy which we believe is going a significant way towards positively counteracting the consequences of austerity.

Earlier this year for example, the STEAM survey, which measures the economic impact of the tourism industry in the UK, recorded that Leeds welcomed 27.29 million tourism visits in 2016, a 4.2 per cent increase from 2015.

A developing city
These figures support our overall upward trend in visitor numbers which has shown a notable 9.7 per cent increase between 2013 and 2016, and the visitor economy sector is growing at an impressive rate too, with day visitors up by four per cent and overnight stays increasing by 5.4 per cent. Leisure tourism visits were estimated to have generated £1.64 billion in 2016, an increase of 15.9 per cent compared to 2015 and the tourism industry plays a vital role in supporting more than 19,000 full time equivalent jobs in Leeds, which is an increase of 3.3 per cent from 2015.

Our business tourism also continues to thrive, and Leeds has become the fifth most popular conferencing destination in the UK, improving its position in the International Convention and Congress Association (ICCA) rankings by 149 places, putting it among the top 10 cities in the UK.

Earlier this year, tourist guide Lonely Planet named Leeds one of its top ten European tourist destinations for 2017 and the recent UK Powerhouse report showed the city’s economy had grown by eight per cent since 2014, outstripping London in the process. And just a few weeks ago, PwC’s annual Good Growth for Cities report saw Leeds come joint top in a list of the country’s most improved cities.

Continuing to build a reputation for having a bustling, thriving city and hosting world class events that people come from far and wide to enjoy, we are seeing a profound impact on the Leeds economy, which is in turn helping to create and sustain jobs for the people who live here.

Looking ahead, and with the potential for further difficult decisions on the horizon regarding our own resources, we can continue to be a strong successful city by encouraging inward investment and harnessing the power of the millions of visitors who want to come and enjoy our city each year. These are tough times for local government finance, and there is much at stake for our residents and our communities. But we can and should meet these unprecedented challenges with courage, optimism, and innovation. By continuing to do that, we can still see our cities thrive and our economies grow.

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