Leeds is great and Channel 4 will love it here. But I’ll believe it when I see it

The owl on the front of Leeds Civil Hall. Image: Getty.

I lost count of the number of overjoyed and excited comments I saw yesterday after Channel 4 announced it was moving its “HQ” to Leeds. Moving 200 media jobs north is nothing to be sniffed at – even though it can hardly be called an “HQ” when the other three-quarters of the staff still work from the office in London.

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t complain too much about what amounts to progress. And I suppose the plan is for those northern jobs, which include commissioning and creative roles, to
eventually be filled with northern people.

But if things go the way they did when the BBC moved a large chunk of its broadcast operations to Salford a decade or so ago, the people of Leeds will be met not with jobs and opportunities but a lot of bewildered former Londoners trying to acclimatise to a strange new land where, when people say, “Alright?”, they’re not actually asking if you’re alright.

I grew up in Leeds, worked as a journalist in London for six years, and then came home to launch The Overtake, a news website for millennials. I love my home city but it’s not
without its… quirks.

The Yorkshire & the Humber region has a population bigger than Scotland and nearly three-quarters the size of London. But it lacks centralisation: Leeds is the biggest city but it would be going much too far to call it the “main” city. What we are is a collection of small, individual cities and large towns.

People – often those who don’t actually live in Yorkshire – like to say these towns don’t like each other but that’s absolute rubbish. I’m convinced that part of what impressed Channel 4 was the Leeds bid’s support from our city’s incredible neighbours, Bradford especially, which is an
enormously overlooked film and TV producing city and is the world’s first UNESCO City of Film.

Nonetheless, it’s perhaps as a result of being part of a strong network of cities that Leeds has suffered when it comes to investment.

Despite having four universities, Leeds’ tech sector is worth a fraction of Manchester’s. In 2018, Manchester-based businesses have secured nearly £100m worth of investment, compared with Leeds’ £40m. (The figure for London is about £1.7bn). This is partly because of a feedback loop: the North West is where the money is, so that’s where the start-ups go; repeat ad infinitum.

We’ve also drawn the short straw when it’s come to transport over the years. Of course, we are in line for HS2: it’s a policy that has been endlessly mocked and lambasted as a waste of money in the South East, but people in Leeds have been largely grateful to even be given a mention, even if the average Leodensian wage of £552 a week will probably never stretch to high-speed rail ticket prices.

I suspect HS2 played a part in Channel 4’s decision but probably not taken into consideration was Leeds’ dire public transport network, which will be the biggest shock to anyone who
moves here from London, where transport receives £419 per head more funding than the north. It’s often said that Leeds is the largest city in Western Europe without a mass transit system: visit our fine city, and this will become immediately, and frustratingly, apparent.

For a start, we’ve only got one train station, which does the job for most of the city. Let’s say you’ve got a meeting up at one of the universities. Leeds station is definitely the closest – but after your train (which, in 45 per cent of cases, will have arrived late) reaches the city, you’re going to need to walk more than a mile uphill, get a cab or catch a bus.

For that kind of trip, a bus is likely your most expensive option. That comes in at £4.50 peak time for a day ticket, but it does at least let you hop on and off all day on any route, as long as it’s covered by that bus company… except there are many of those, and they all have their own
ticket system. I’ve used Leeds buses regularly since I was a child, yet last week I still managed to be caught out by this and had to buy an extra ticket as the street I wanted to go to was covered by a different company.

Since it rivals the bus on price, our new friends from London might decide to get a cab. It’s a smart move on the way up to the university – it’s a straight line, with probably a little bit of traffic but nothing too traumatic. On the way back however, it’s a torturous three-mile tour of the outskirts of the city centre, jammed with traffic, on what’s known simply as “the loop”. If you’re driving for the first time in Leeds, the loop will absolutely humiliate you.

But local taxi drivers at least understand our absurdly counterintuitive system, where even if you can see your destination on the right, you first must go left and navigate a series of complex and puzzling turns. If a taxi driver seems to be literally taking you around the houses, they’re not holding you hostage or trying to rip you off, as ridiculous as the journey may seem.That’s just how you get anywhere.

However: once you get over the inability to ever get anywhere and the almost criminal lack of investment in some areas, everything else here is really quite nice. People talk to you, we have a very beautiful free festival of light every year and our increasing rough sleeper population is pretty polite (except the guy up by The Fenton – he catcalls).

The city has lost large chunks of the media that had a home here over the last 20 years or so (RIP Countdown). But I guarantee that the talented people of Leeds will more than make up for the city’s groaning infrastructure.

In fact, my biggest fear is not that people from London won’t love Leeds. It’s that this whole thing will never happen – that it’s a publicity stunt that will dwindle and die, or a grand plan that will be deemed “unfeasible” by next year.

And it’s not just me. Arguably, more than any other place in the UK, the people of Leeds have come to take these announcements with a pinch of salt. After the damp squib of the Northern Powerhouse, the cancellation of our desperately needed electrified rail lines and so so many spiked plans to bring back the city’s beloved old tram network, a lot of us won’t be celebrating until Channel 4 staff are literally here clogging up the big Waitrose in Meanwood.

Until that actually happens, you’ll have to forgive me for thinking these plans are just more promises from London that, again, sound a bit too good to be true.

Robyn Vinter is founder and editor of The Overtake.


A new wave of remote workers could bring lasting change to pricey rental markets

There’s a wide world of speculation about the long-lasting changes to real estate caused by the coronavirus. (Valery Hache/AFP via Getty Images)

When the coronavirus spread around the world this spring, government-issued stay-at-home orders essentially forced a global social experiment on remote work.

Perhaps not surprisingly, people who are able to work from home generally like doing so. A recent survey from iOmetrics and Global Workplace Analytics on the work-from-home experience found that 68% of the 2,865 responses said they were “very successful working from home”, 76% want to continue working from home at least one day a week, and 16% don’t want to return to the office at all.

It’s not just employees who’ve gained this appreciation for remote work – several companies are acknowledging benefits from it as well. On 11 June, the workplace chat company Slack joined the growing number of companies that will allow employees to work from home even after the pandemic. “Most employees will have the option to work remotely on a permanent basis if they choose,” Slack said in a public statement, “and we will begin to increasingly hire employees who are permanently remote.”

This type of declaration has been echoing through workspaces since Twitter made its announcement on 12 May, particularly in the tech sector. Since then, companies including Coinbase, Square, Shopify, and Upwork have taken the same steps.

Remote work is much more accessible to white and higher-wage workers in tech, finance, and business services sectors, according to the Economic Policy Institute, and the concentration of these jobs in some major cities has contributed to ballooning housing costs in those markets. Much of the workforce that can work remotely is also more able to afford moving than those on lower incomes working in the hospitality or retail sectors. If they choose not to report back to HQ in San Francisco or New York City, for example, that could potentially have an effect on the white-hot rental and real estate markets in those and other cities.

Data from Zumper, an online apartment rental platform, suggests that some of the priciest rental markets in the US have already started to soften. In June, rent prices for San Francisco’s one- and two-bedroom apartments dropped more than 9% compared to one year before, according to the company’s monthly rent report. The figures were similar in nearby Silicon Valley hotspots of San Jose, Mountain View, Palo Alto.

Six of the 10 highest-rent cities in the US posted year-over-year declines, including New York City, Los Angeles, and Seattle. At the same time, rents increased in some cheaper cities that aren’t far from expensive ones: “In our top markets, while Boston and San Francisco rents were on the decline, Providence and Sacramento prices were both up around 5% last month,” Zumper reports.

In San Francisco, some property owners have begun offering a month or more of free rent to attract new tenants, KQED reports, and an April survey from the San Francisco Apartment Association showed 16% of rental housing providers had residents break a lease or unexpectedly give a 30-day notice to vacate.

It’s still too early to say how much of this movement can be attributed to remote work, layoffs or pay cuts, but some who see this time as an opportunity to move are taking it.

Jay Streets, who owns a two-unit house in San Francisco, says he recently had tenants give notice and move to Kentucky this spring.

“He worked for Google, she worked for another tech company,” Streets says. “When Covid happened, they were on vacation in Palm Springs and they didn’t come back.”

The couple kept the lease on their $4,500 two-bedroom apartment until Google announced its employees would be working from home for the rest of the year, at which point they officially moved out. “They couldn’t justify paying rent on an apartment they didn’t need,” Streets says.

When he re-listed the apartment in May for the same price, the requests poured in. “Overwhelmingly, everyone that came to look at it were all in the situation where they were now working from home,” he says. “They were all in one-bedrooms and they all wanted an extra bedroom because they were all working from home.”

In early June, Yessika Patapoff and her husband moved from San Francisco’s Lower Haight neighbourhood to Tiburon, a charming town north of the city. Patapoff is an attorney who’s been unemployed since before Covid-19 hit, and her husband is working from home. She says her husband’s employer has been flexible about working from home, but it is not currently a permanent situation. While they’re paying a similar price for housing, they now have more space, and no plans to move back.

“My husband and I were already growing tired of the city before Covid,” Patapoff says.

Similar stories emerged in the UK, where real estate markets almost completely stopped for 50 days during lockdown, causing a rush of demand when it reopened. “Enquiry activity has been extraordinary,” Damian Gray, head of Knight Frank’s Oxford office told World Property Journal. “I've never been contacted by so many people that want to live outside London."

Several estate agencies in London have reported a rush for properties since the market opened back up, particularly for more spacious properties with outdoor space. However, Mansion Global noted this is likely due to pent up demand from 50 days of almost complete real estate shutdown, so it’s hard to tell whether that trend will continue.

There’s a wide world of speculation about the long-lasting changes to real estate caused by the coronavirus, but many industry experts say there will indeed be change.

In May, The New York Times reported that three of New York City’s largest commercial tenants — Barclays, JP Morgan Chase and Morgan Stanley — have hinted that many of their employees likely won’t be returning to the office at the level they were pre-Covid.

Until workers are able to safely return to offices, it’s impossible to tell exactly how much office space will stay vacant post-pandemic. On one hand, businesses could require more space to account for physical distancing; on the other hand, they could embrace remote working permanently, or find some middle ground that brings fewer people into the office on a daily basis.

“It’s tough to say anything to the office market because most people are not back working in their office yet,” says Robert Knakal, chairman of JLL Capital Markets. “There will be changes in the office market and there will likely be changes in the residential market as well in terms of how buildings are maintained, constructed, [and] designed.”

Those who do return to the office may find a reversal of recent design trends that favoured open, airy layouts with desks clustered tightly together. “The space per employee likely to go up would counterbalance the folks who are no longer coming into the office,” Knakal says.

There has been some discussion of using newly vacant office space for residential needs, and while that’s appealing to housing advocates in cities that sorely need more housing, Bill Rudin, CEO of Rudin Management Company, recently told Spectrum News that the conversion process may be too difficult to be practical.

"I don’t know the amount of buildings out there that could be adapted," he said. "It’s very complicated and expensive.

While there’s been tumult in San Francisco’s rental scene, housing developers appear to still be moving forward with their plans, says Dan Sider, director of executive programs at the SF Planning Department.

“Despite the doom and gloom that we all read about daily, our office continues to see interest from the development community – particularly larger, more established developers – in both moving ahead with existing applications and in submitting new applications for large projects,” he says.

How demand for those projects might change and what it might do to improve affordable housing is still unknown, though “demand will recover,” Sider predicts.

Johanna Flashman is a freelance writer based in Oakland, California.