Some very short reviews of assorted cities in Yorkshire

The Hepworth, Wakefield. Image: Poliphilo/Wikimedia Commons.

When you’re only visiting a city for a few hours, you can’t realistically hope to understand every nuance of social or economic history, or understand what it’s like to live there. There’s only so much you can learn.

One of the things you can learn, however, is what it’s like to visit the place for a few hours. So, since I spent several days this summer shuttling between different bits of Yorkshire, I thought I’d write some brief reviews of the cities I visited.

I’m sure these won’t get me into any trouble whatsoever.

Wakefield

On one side of the Doncaster Road you’ll find the Hepworth, a gallery whose architecture and setting are as beautiful as any work of art it contains. On the other, you’ll find a medieval bridge over the river Calder, alongside the ancient Chantry Chapel of St Mary the Virgin.

These things, alas, lie either side of a god-awful dual carriageway, a depressing and inconvenient half a mile walk from the city centre. You know that thing about not hiding your light under a bushel? Wakefield hides its light besides the A61.

That’s my overriding impression of Wakefield: depressing streets and genuine treasures, all mingled up together at random. The Cathedral looks good, there’s some decent public realm in the “civic quarter” near town and county halls (this was once the capital of the West Riding), and there are a lot of fine buildings in the network of ancient, narrow streets behind Marygate, too.

But the main shopping centre dates from the ’80s with all that implies, Westgate station feels unloved and Kirkgate forgotten, and chunks of the city feel shabby to the point of decay. Oh, and there are too many massive bloody roads.

Loads of past glories on show, but the place needs... not even love. Money. It needs money.

Leeds

I’ve been to Leeds three times now, and I still feel oddly like I’ve never seen it. This is frustrating because most people I know who’ve ever lived there swear by the place.

So on this trip, I tried to explore a bit further than I had in the past, crossing the river to the regeneration area on the south bank of the Aire, and taking buses up to the student areas of north Leeds and back. And I did see a couple of things that grabbed me: the Corn Exchange, which I’d somehow managed to miss before, is stunning, as are some of those Victorian shopping arcades, and the area around Woodhouse Moor is gorgeous, especially when viewed from the top of a bus.

Insider the Corn Exchange. Image: SteveCadman/Wikimedia Commons.

And yet, still, I just don’t get it. There’s a load of great stuff in Leeds, but I just can’t quite get a handle on what the place is like as a whole, in a way I’ve not found with Liverpool or Manchester or even poor, unloved Birmingham.

So what am I missing? Is it just that I can’t shift the impression left by that horrendous bit in front of the main station? Am I just broken in some way? Tell me.

Huddersfield

How can I not love a place where the first thing you see on arriving is a statue of Harold Wilson, and where the station looks like this?

Huddersfield station, with Harold Wilson. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

Huddersfield boasts a frankly incredible amount of fine 19th architecture: the town hall, the George Hotel, St Peter’s Church, and always the sight of the Victoria Tower on Castle Hill looking down on the town. It’s one of those places where there are so many fine buildings, the authorities genuinely don’t seem sure what to do with them all.

On the other side of the balance sheet is the bus station, and the buildings where the council offices are housed, and the fact this fine centre is fenced in by one of the worst ring-roads I’ve ever seen. But nowhere’s perfect. This is one of the few places from which commuting to both Leeds and Manchester is equally plausible so, in the event we ever solve this whole north-south divide thing, I’d expect Huddersfield to boom.

York

Chocolate box. Beautiful, obviously – the Minster! The walls! The museum gardens! – but with a lingering sense that the place is now more for those who visit than those who live there.

The Shambles. Image: Peter K. Burian/Wikimedia Commons.

What the city really reminds me of is Oxford and Cambridge. It’s a beautiful medieval city, with insanely high property prices, overly tight green belt and a ring road, where you can’t turn your head without bashing it into someone taking a picture of a building that they think they know from Harry Potter. The university has even divided itself into colleges and sent its products out to conquer the British media. No one has yet tried to coin the phrase “Yoxbridge”, but it can only be a matter of time.

The Railway Museum is a reminder that there was another York – a grittier, more industrial one – but these days it’s all tourists and students and London ex-pats smug they can afford the house prices.

Halifax

Why has nobody ever told me to visit Halifax? Why is it not competing with York for that lucrative tourist market?

The Piece Hall. Image: Tim Green/Wikimedia Commons.

It should be: it’s glorious. The 18th century Piece Hall looks like something that got lost on its way to Renaissance Italy. The covered Victorian Borough Market is less unexpected, but just as beautiful. And the whole place lies on the side of a valley, overlooked by beautiful Pennine Hills. It’s stunning, and no one had ever mentioned it to me.


So why isn’t Halifax a destination? I fear that geography may play a part: its Pennine location means Halifax isn’t on the main north-south routes, and even the main east-west railway lines skip it, running instead via Huddersfield (today) or Bradford (should they ever build HS3). But it’s gorgeous, and the municipal authorities should start trying to sell it as a Christmas destination pronto, and you, personally, should go, right now.

Go on then.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”

Katie Bishop is a freelance writer based in Oxford.