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.


CityMetric is now City Monitor! Come see us at our new home

City Monitor is now live in beta at citymonitor.ai.

CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

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The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

Please visit citymonitor.ai going forward, where you can also sign up for our free email newsletter.

As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

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Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.