Tag Archives: leeds

Better, not more democracy

Do you know who the Chief Executive of Leeds City Council is? This person oversees the management of a £650 million budget and the operations of local government in our city. Notably, he does take an interest in the cultural and business life of the city and has considerable influence on investment in the area, having been involved with the biggest business group in Yorkshire, which was effectively closed down by the Coalition government last year.

Do you know who the Lord Mayor of Leeds is? This role is largely honorary and is elected by the council for a year. He will attend a variety of events and functions and act as the civic representative of Leeds.

You probably know who the Mayor of London is. The capital is about to go to the polls to elect a Mayor for the fourth time. Ken Livingstone is running for the fourth time against the incumbent, Boris Johnson, with the Liberal Democrat, Brian Paddick, running for a second time. Livingstone’s two terms were a mixed success: he introduced the Congestion Charge and tried to corral transport fares and backed the city for the Olympic bid in 2005, once again becoming the person who embodied London before becoming enmired in allegations of grift and favouritism, meaning that Johnson won in 2008 and became known to the world as the somewhat dishevelled waver of the Union Jack at the Olympic closing ceremony in Beijing. Johnson’s notable first term achievements are the return of the Routemaster to the city’s streets and the introduction of ‘Boris bikes’.

On May 3rd we residents of Leeds have the opportunity to vote in a referendum to decide whether the city has an elected mayor. The elected mayor would have a four year term. That’s about as much as is certain at the moment. The post might replace the Lord Mayor. The post might replace the Chief Executive. Or it might not. That, for me, is the issue. We are being asked to vote on an serious change in the local democratic process without actually knowing what that change will entail, with the one emolient so far being the promise of a mayoral cabinet that would consult directly with the Prime Minister. The election is part of a promised package for the ten core cities of England. At the moment, Leicester has an elected mayor who has been in office for a year and still does not know the extent of his powers and duties.

Several towns and cities adopted elected mayors under Labour and the results have been less than stellar to say the least. Some have succumbed to the cult of personality, others to indifference that have lead to the representatives of minority political parties being able to exercise excessive power based on prejudice and false assumptions. The assumption in even having a referendum is that the ‘core cities’ want to follow this pattern.

It has been suggested that Leeds is struggling to achieve its potential at the moment because of the succession of hung councils that have been returned since the turn of the century. Compare this to Manchester’s seemingly perpetual Labour majority and the sense of purpose that it creates and it might be a valid suggestion. On the other hand it might be as simple as the civic pride and sense of place that has often been lacking in Leeds and indeed Yorkshire, which is in part the way we are, although it’s never prevented our neighbours down the M1 from getting on. But do we need an elected cheerleader? Would we get one? I think it’s unlikely. The options available for an elected mayor appear to be either a representative of the party machines as with the council, a figurehead who can promote the city’s public face and attract inward investment and support, or an expert who is willing to make the move from an functional role to a political role.

Party politics in this country is at a nadir. The three main parties have hardly anything to distinguish them in the majority of their policies. Politics is a career choice rather than a calling. A political city leader would have to play the game and be trapped in the cycle of re-election and image management that inhibits genuine change. Worse, the low level of interest in civic politics could, as in Doncaster, result in a minority party gaining power. While it’s true to say we get the politicians we deserve, an elected mayor places too much power on a single person or office without checks and balances.

So do we go beyond politics and find candidates who stand on their beliefs and merits? Ken Livingstone was elected as London mayor in 2000 without the support of the Labour Party, his personal reputation as the last leader of the Greater London Council carrying the election as a response to the often perceived injustice of the abolition of the GLC. While his politics were and are of the left, he represented London. Could we find someone could do the same in Leeds?

What about a skilled administrator? Would a senior manager like Tom Riordan be prepared to stand on his merits to be hired in an elected position? We have little history of this in the UK although it has been suggested for police and fire chiefs. Do our administrators need public approval to do their job? On the one hand it would give the job someone with acknowledged skills in the field. On the other they too would have to play the electoral game, which is always more than just a few months before polling day.

At the moment none of these questions have answers. We are being asked to make a decision on minimal information, a decision that would have huge ramifications for the way that our city is run, and that isn’t acceptable. A city is much more than its political structure, and politics will not create lasting answers to many of the pressing issues that Leeds has. Last year the Conservatives crushed the debate on electoral reform for a generation. This year they are intent on chaining the major cities to an outdated system in return for some crumbs of patronage from national government. We deserve a lot more than that.


All the news that’s…

The Guardian’s announcement today that it will be winding down its experiment in local journalism has produced considerable reaction from those cities in which the paper appointed a ‘beat blogger’ to cover local news – Cardiff, Edinburgh and Leeds. As a resident of the latter, http://www.guardian.co.uk/leeds has become an essential local information and discussion service and has been the focus for a number of campaigns, particularly around the state of the city’s public transport, the ever expanding cultural conversation that is helping to redefine what it is to be a Loiner, and the festivals and events that celebrate not just our city, but its streets, neighbourhoods and compass points.

It’s sometimes hard to get useful news in Leeds. The other day my wife and I took a trip out to the coast via my house in Yeadon. We headed up to Harrogate Road around the back of the airport and found that traffic was building up the other way, suggesting that something was up near the airport entrance. We diverted around East Carlton, getting frustrated by people who didn’t expect to find a small farming hamlet next to an international airport, and joined the road again at the traffic lights at Old Otley Road. There was a major incident ongoing, with at several fire and ambulance units in residence, and we made a note to find out what was going on when we got home. That night I searched the local news services and found nothing. I didn’t find out what had happened until Monday afternoon, and that from a local newspaper website  that is the merger of the local newspapers in Aireborough, Otley and Ilkley. Perhaps it wasn’t a major incident, but it was still news to those drivers who found themselves negotiating unknown country in the badlands of the Wharfe Valley.

This is typical of the state of online news in Leeds today. On weekends there is nothing except the football results on the Yorkshire (Evening) Post websites or the BBC Leeds site. There are maybe half a dozen stories a day during the week. If the printed version of the Yorkshire Post and Evening Post were better it would be forgiveable, but in this new media age, we have neither good old media or new. Guardian Leeds was a brave experiment by the paper that has worked for local readers, but presumably doesn’t fitted in with management’s current plans.

Matt Edgar has suggested raising the finance to maintain the service through Pledgebank but I don’t think that’s what the Guardian has in mind. It does at least accept that the paper is a business and that the service would have to be paid for in some way.

In my day job I work with a US website called The Examiner. It’s a major local news source in cities across America, sourcing its information from local ‘Examiners’ who cover beats and topics in their towns. The local press is in greater decline in the US than here, with the big city and regional dailies just about surviving, but the local press becoming thin advertising sheets that at best are satellites of their nearby metropolitan editions and at worst are pages of houses, used cars and coupons with a thin shell of local affairs. Sound familiar?

So the web, as Guardian Leeds has proved, can be a good source of local news. The success of the Examiner in the US suggests that it can be crowd sourced (it does pay, but based on impressions and ad revenue so I can’t imagine it makes a living for many Examiners). Leeds and West Yorkshire has an enthusiastic and ever growing presence on Twitter who report and make the news. There are ventures like Leeds TV who are reporting using video, entertainment sites, community projects across the city and many other sources which, if pulled together, could create the news source that the city deserves. It would be as big as it needed to be: the cost of entry to the web is far less than it used to be: start with no illusions about the fortunes available (small or none) but with the enthusiasm available (tons) it could be those that miss Guardian Leeds the most that create the alternative.

Restaurant Review: Deeva, Town Street, Farsley

There’s something about former Methodist chapel that lends itself to Indian restaurants: possibly it’s the size of the space and the way that modern restaurant design uses it. Deeva has taken over such a chapel on Farsley Town Street, and made it into a spacious but intimate dining room downstairs and lounge and informal bar upstairs.

The restaurant opened in October and has gained in popularity since. We turned up without booking at just after 8:30 on a February Saturday night and were told by the maitre de, Sanjir, that we would have a ten minute wait to get a table ready. We sat at the downstairs bar with a drink – bottled Timothy Taylor Landlord was on offer as well as the usual selection of lagers – and as promised, were taken to our table after a short wait.

Poppadoms were offered as we sat down, and delivered with a good selection of pickles including an addictively spicy chilli sauce. My wife and I are vegetarian and weren’t disappointed by the choices available: Sanjir prides himself on this selection and has in the past offered us dishes that he is trying out. Today however, we went for the mixed vegetarian platter for two, chilli paneer, aloo chickpea, pilau rice and a garlic naan.

We were only given one each of the vegetable samosa and paneer tikka as part of the mixed vegetable platter, although both were substantial enough to share. The rest of the selection made up for it with well made onion bhajis and assorted pakora. The pakora were particularily well cooked, with aubergine that melted in the mouth.

Mains are presented individually but were shared as were the rice and naan and all were well flavoured. The chilli paneer needs a little more personality but it was good to see it on the menu as something other than an accompaniment to peas or spinach or as that local staple, the pakora. The naan was slathered in an excellent garlic butter which complemented both dishes.

We didn’t do desserts (I’m diabetic and gulub jaman isn’t a good idea) and the total bill, with drinks, came to just over £40.

Deeva is an excellent addition to an area which is gaining a good reputation for its Indian restaurants, and is well worth a trip out to see what’s making it so popular with the locals.

Deeva, 58 Town Street, Farsley, Leeds LS28 5LD 0113-236-0947

The fashion and the fight

As a non-aligned sort-of-punk, sort-of-goth of the late 70s, and a football fan firmly stuck in the armchair, the casual movement was a small blip on my radar. There certainly didn’t seem to be any in Doncaster at least, but back at the time Doncaster Rovers had hardly any fans, sharply dressed or not. Those of us who looked up the M1 to Leeds might remember the casual violence of time more from the articles that picked up on the trend in the Face and ID trying to slum it with a working class trend that they tried to turn into a movement.

A photographic exhibition at Temple Works on Saturday remembers the ‘dressers’ of Leeds and charts the changing styles that of the Leeds United supporters of the early 80s, as evolve it did, from the sharp dress of the mod revival to the dope and tracksuits of the early stages of baggy in the space of a few years. This article remembers the time for the clothes, the friendship and the adventure as much as the football and the accompanying battles.

Wish You Were Here, Saturday 19th February 2011, Temple Works, Holbeck 11am – 2pm and after Leeds United v Norwich City at Elland Road.

Libraries gave us power

After living in the area for seven years or so, I noticed Rawdon Library the other day. It’s a fairly utilitarian bit of civic architecture, built in limestone and in sight of the A65 in the corner of Micklefield Park. It’s one of the libraries in Leeds that is earmarked for closure as part of the city’s New Chapter reorganisation and of the four in the area would appear to be the one that is most likely to close, being both relatively close to Yeadon and Guiseley libraries and quite a way from what most people would regard as Rawdon, and as such is not able to meet one of the main functions of a library, that of a community resource.

Libraries are some of the more visible resources of the municipal landscape as they are public buildings as much as they are book repositories, and therefore when they are perceived as being at risk, concerned people get together to support them. However, many of those concerned people are probably trying to save something that they remember from their childhood, and not what they are now.

Those of us who are in our forties were probably the last generation that really knew what the public libraries were. As we left school they started to be eroded by the cuts that eroded the visible aspects of public service in the 80s and 90s. Books got old and were not replaced: populism replaced service and videos and DVDs joined cassettes and CDs. The Internet brought PCs into a corner of the building and then took over when Amazon made books more easily available then any library could make them.

The libraries that are under threat now are therefore not the libraries that we think they are. Yes, they are an excellent resource, but making books available is not their primary function: they are social centres and meeting places, and as such should be preserved, but much of the goodwill surrounding them is due in part to the nostalgia of our generation.
However, let us also not forget where the British public library came from: many were founded on the bequest of the Carnegie Foundation: the kind of philanthropy that the modern Conservative Party (or its leadership at least) believes should be the foundation of the Big Society, but which in truth, would never exist in this way again.

United, the Leeds Tiger and the return of civic pride

It’s a rainy Sunday afternoon in February. On the other side of the Headrow the main shopping streets of Leeds are busy with winter weekend shoppers, but Millennium Square is also busy with visitors to Leeds City Museum. Occupying the former Mechanics’ Institute building that used to house the Civic Theatre, the museum is a recent addition to the square, but its design and integration has already established it as a landmark in the city.

On this wet afternoon, there are many attractions: on the top floor, the Special Exhibitions room is host to Spiceworld, a retrospective of the Spice Girls, whose late 90s heyday is drifting into cultural history. It’s relevance is of course that Mel B, Scary Spice, is a local daughter, born in Burley. Other parts of the building are, however much busier. The map of the city on the floor of the arena around which the musuem is built, is covered with kids pointing out their homes, picking out places or just sliding around. The back end of the Leeds Collectors Gallery is playing host to a storyteller and a small crowd of enraptured children and their equally entertained parents. Downstairs, the Life on Earth gallery also mills with children and places Leeds and the surrounding area in a context in the evolving world.

Standing guard over the Life on Earth exhibition is the Leeds Tiger, a stuffed Bengal who has been in the city for very nearly 150 years. Its story is the usual one of colonial barbarism, twisted slightly by the charming fact that its first few years in this country were spent as a rug. The tiger has become a touchstone for many in Leeds, not least my wife and I, as it was where we went on our first date two years ago.

Leeds hasn’t had a proper city museum since the mid-1960s, when the former museum located in Park Row closed its doors for the last time. A small part of the collection lived in the municipal buildings on Calverley Street until 1999, and other parts of the collection were distributed across the city’s other properties such as Temple Newsam and the Abbey House at Kirkstall.

Towns need their civic collection though, and a city such as Leeds, if any city can be like any other, with such a lot to be proud of, needs one more than most, and the two and a half years since the new museum opened its doors have also seen a improvement in the city’s view of itself.

For many years Leeds was the London of the north, the capital of Yorkshire, a financial centre in a county known for its canny way with brass, a centre of the legal business, and that mythical 24-hour city where, in the Englishman’s view, it was possible to get a drink at any time of the day. There was a near-victorious football team that almost didn’t have to look back to its last glory days of the mid-1970s.

But these things ignored the city’s civic and industrial history, trusting in the future of service. When I arrived in Leeds from London in 2001 it seemed to be lacking a real identity. The Bank of England had closed, leaving only a junction on the Loop as a mark of its passing, and much of the money had gone with it. Leeds United were in the top half of the Premiership but not far from the collapse that saw them drop to Division One. The city was prospering but at the cost of its past. The idea of Leeds was hollow.

When Leeds United were relegated in the disastrous but not unexpected season of 2003-4, the fans sang’We’re not famous any more’ and ‘We’re going down, but we’ll be back’. In 2011, the club is in the top six of the Championship and on the verge of a return to the Premiership, and the city is rediscovering itself through the museum, projects like the Leeds Owl Trail and a grassroots campaign in support of the city centred around the Culture Vultures blog, alongside cheerleaders on Twitter who have driven the discussion and promoted new businesses and ideas in the city.

Millennium Square has been at the heart of this renaissance and the placing of the City Museum there has served to confirm it as the civic centre of the city. The Leeds Tiger is a fond memory for older generations of the city, and its place in the museum has created continuity with the past. Leeds is a place to be proud of again.

Our visit to the museum today was to see the tiger, and show him that we got married in October. Two years ago I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to be in this city but my wife, the way that the museum celebrates Leeds and the way that it has been a part in creating pride in it has confirmed that it’s where I want to stay.