Last night I attended a workshop on the “Vision for Leeds in 2030”. I’m sure we’ve all been to things like this, lots of men in suits sitting around talking about USPs (unique selling points) and landmark buildings, etc., etc, Well, this one was different. Firstly, about a third of the group were women (not good enough, though!), secondly, only one man was wearing a suit (and he apologised for it), and thirdly, there was hardly any of the usual “visioning twaddle”. Instead, a theme emerged from the evening which was that successful cities (and successful communities of any kind) are about human relationships. We talked about needing to create spaces, physical and virtual, where people can interact in informal ways without agendas, and how that can lead to the long-term evolution of places where people want to be, primarily because they know their neighbours and fellow citizens, want to interact with them, and want to build collective spirit and understanding. I found this immensely encouraging, and I hope it is taken account of more widely. I believe it is especially important in a city like Leeds which is such a place of contradictions, with one of the most vibrant and thriving enterprise economies in the north of England existing alongside some of the poorest communities anywhere in the country. This kind of approach could lead to the creation of conditions where the people of Leeds can put their collective brain power to the task of solving the city’s problems and building on its strengths.
I also thought the event was important in demonstrating how the “Big Society” philosophy is starting to influence the way people think. There was a lot of talk about how we need to stop planning, strategising and theorising, and just get on and do stuff.
Two examples in particular came up. One was about the Leeds Mayor’s Show, which used to be the biggest Mayoral parade in the country outside London, with communities and groups from all over the city vying to produce the best float, and the whole city turning out to cheer them on. This was effectively killed off when the policy of the police charging for their services at events was introduced, and policing costs made it unviable. This policy makes all sorts of communal events difficult to stage, and, if the Big Society is to be made a reality, we need to find a way to go back to how it used to be.
The other issue that was raised was the fact that Leeds Bradford Airport is not connected to the railway network, despite being separated by three fields from the Leeds – Harrogate railway line. Surely, the obstacles that have prevented this connection can be overcome in the spirit of the Big Society.