Leeds: the future is green

Leeds, the destination of EG’s latest Question Time debate, hit national headlines this year – for better and worse.

One particular good news story – the imminent arrival of Channel 4 into Leeds – was unsurprisingly the opening talking point of the debate. It was announced in April, with great fanfare, that the broadcasting giant had picked the Grade II listed Majestic building as its new headquarters.

It is expected that a wave of new creative talent will enter the city, which is predominantly known as a destination for the legal and financial sectors. But with a shortage of grade-A office space, the industry faces a major challenge to provide suitable space for these new occupiers. And while speakers celebrated the Channel 4 success and discussed how Leeds could capitalise on the move, it was another topic that dominated conversation: climate change and sustainability.

This should come as no surprise. Leeds has come under fire for its high levels of pollution after it was reported in February this year that Neville Street, near Leeds train station, was the most polluted street outside of London.

And in a climate where the general public are becoming aware to the dangers of environmental damage, both speakers and delegates at EG’s Question Time voiced their concerns over how the property industry can effectively respond – and ensure the growth of the city runs hand-in-hand with its ambitions to become greener.

The Channel 4 effect

Securing Channel 4 was described as “a major success story” for Leeds by Savills director of real estate management Matthew Jones, but he acknowledged that the city needed to “up the game in terms of the quality of the residential space in the city”.

This has not been helped by a historic lack of investment in Leeds, which is now picking up pace in the residential and office sectors. “Development was a bit all over the shop,” Jones said. “Now there’s some major areas of development which are [more] focused – we can now catch up and develop a lot more offices and homes.”

But while Channel 4’s move presents a “phenomenal opportunity” for Leeds to capitalise on the opportunities this will bring, and shows the city is “open for business”, Leeds City Council chief officer of economic development Eve Roodhouse insisted it is critical to ensure future development is sustainable.

“We have really significant ambitions for the city, but by the same token, we’re really clear that we want to do that in a framework of inclusive growth and sustainability,” she said, adding that it will be an “easier process” for projects to be granted planning permission if developers understand what the council is trying to achieve – and how.

“It’s a two-way street,” she said. “If developers have a sense of where we want to go as a city and work well with us, then that tends to ease the process through the council.”

But as moderator and EG editor-in-chief Damian Wild noted, Channel 4 will only bring a couple of hundred employees into the city. Is Leeds over-egging the impact the broadcaster will actually have?

Absolutely not, said Roodhouse. “It is a phenomenal opportunity for this part of the world to get our story across,” she said. “The stories from Leeds and Yorkshire can be told more strongly by Channel 4: it’s a profile for the city.”

She added the city can start to “develop a bit of a niche” in bringing together digital content production and television production industries – which, according to Roodhouse, is already happening. “I was over in Manchester last week meeting with three postproduction houses, all of whom want to come to Leeds,” she said. “I came away and said, right, we need to raise our ambitions.”

Transport to catalyse development 

While the council and the property industry may have big plans for the future of Leeds, the success of this could be dependent on dramatically improving transport links and infrastructure in the city.

Indeed, judging from the show of hands across the EG Question Time audience, almost everyone said they were concerned that poor transport provision had the potential to slam the brakes on Leeds’ growth in the decade ahead.

For example, if Leeds is going to contribute to the government’s plans to build 300,000 new homes a year from the mid-2020s onwards, said Jones, it can only do so if infrastructure is improved alongside this.

This is becoming increasingly important in order for Leeds to capitalise on the future arrival of HS2 into the city centre, said Rushbond real estate director Mark Finch. If regional infrastructure was improved, this could help “break the north-south divide” in place, he said. 

“People will not just look at the North and Leeds as a cheap place to produce or make things, that they may have thought 120 years ago, but actually how they can tap into the talent in this region,” Finch said.

But while formulating this infrastructure plan, it is critical, according to University of Leeds Institute for Transport Studies lead research fellow Dr. Caroline Mullen, to wean the city off its dependency on cars and reduce pollution levels.

“The solution is not easy,” she said. “But broadly, it’s about investing in public transport, not just down corridors, but so that people can get to those corridors from towns and villages into Leeds.”

She added that creating safe cycling routes and more attractive public realm space would help to normalise different ways of travelling around the city besides by car.

Hyperloop: fantasy or reality?

Leeds’ infrastructure is being put under an increasing amount of pressure. But imagine a transport network that could carry people from Leeds to Manchester in under 10 minutes. Surely this could be the silver bullet Leeds, and the rest of the North, is looking for?

This technology is exactly what is being developed by Virgin Hyperloop. The company is testing a system that would put passengers in vacuum-sealed tubes, which would be sent hurtling at 600km an hour down routes across the country.

Could we really see this rolled out across the North to connect Leeds with its Northern counterparts, asked Wild? Speakers were sceptical – including Dr Mullen.

“We’ve got to think about the implications of climate change, and we’ve got to think about doing something fairly radical now about it. The sorts of energy that are going to be involved in Hyperloop[…] this idea that there is pollution, free tech, technology and technology allowing produce pollution free energy is a little bit of a fantasy.”

Leeds’ climate change emergency

A month after it was reported that Leeds had the most polluted street outside of London, the city council declared a full climate emergency in March, and committed to making the city carbon neutral by 2030.

“A large part of what we’re trying to do through this is understand how our transport strategy can reduce carbon emissions,” Roodhouse explained, adding: “If we can’t achieve complete carbon neutrality around car travel, we need to start thinking about how we offset that.”

Developers have a role to play in helping the council meet its targets, says Get Living executive chairman Rick de Blaby. Indeed, implementing sustainability initiatives should “ooze out of every pore”.

“It [sustainability] is absolutely correlated to value. When we think about what our resident proposition is, for a lot of the millennial audience that we’re attracting, this agenda is huge. I don’t think they’d come to us if they thought we would propagate and be irresponsible in that area.”

But how can we do this in practice? Roodhouse said that innovation is key to finding solutions to the sustainability challenge, which researchers at the University of Leeds are currently investigating, she said.

“We’re trying to really understand what our innovation ecosystem looks like in Leeds, how we can accelerate innovation, and how we can use that to grow,” Roodhouse said. 

It is clear the council has ambitious plans for the city, which some may think are incompatible with its commitment to tackle the effects of climate change. It is up to the property industry to help Leeds meet this challenge, and help make it a prosperous, but ultimately greener, city.


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