South of the River – Victoria

Compass-SouthComment logo 2You can’t have missed the news – Leeds newest shopping arcade opened yesterday.

Victoria Gate boasts a John Lewis store and god knows how many upmarket retail outlets (or shops as we used to call them). I was confused for a few minutes yesterday morning looking at my Twitter feed. There was so much talk about Victoria Gate that for a moment I thought I’d missed the latest scandal.

Was there news of some previously hidden indiscretion by Queen Victoria, or worse Victoria Wood? Why was everyone talking about Victoriagate?

It was a weak joke yesterday and it’s still a weak joke today. What can I say? I’m sorry.

The city is, or at least the movers and shakers in the city are, very excited by this opening. Looking at the numbers, perhaps they are right to be. Hammerson have invested £165 million building it and it has created 1,500 jobs and 800 car park spaces.

The size of the investment shows ‘confidence’ in the city, or at least the city region.

We clearly need jobs in Leeds and I understand the council have worked well with employers to make sure as many jobs as possible go to people from areas like ours (there was a jobs fair at St George’s centre in Middleton earlier this year). But is retail and high end retail at that really the way we build the Leeds economy?

Phil Kirby wrote an interesting review over on The Culture Vulture. It was mostly about the architecture and unlike my Other Half, Phil likes the new car park. But he also made some good points about how people like us see and will see Victoria Gate – from the outside.

We are the sort of people who walk around the city centre, especially the markets end of it. We are the sort of people who travel by bus, not up Vicar Lane for the last year or so, but round Crown Point and up Eastgate past the building site.

It’s been fenced off. The physical fences are down now, but how many of us will venture in, apart to have a bit of a gawp. How many of us can afford to buy anything in Victoria Gate?

Now I have to declare a soft spot for John Lewis. I was lucky (or unlucky) enough to grow up in  central London and the Peter Jones department store (a branch of John Lewis) was on our doorstep. They sold quality goods and they were ‘never knowingly undersold’ – a posh phrase for price-matching. If you can afford quality goods, they are good place to buy them – but they are not a pound shop.

South Leeds is going to benefit from Victoria Gate, but in a rather second-hand way.

Firstly (I hope) some of our people have got jobs working in the place. Not something to be dismissed lightly, particularly if it’s a proper permanent contract.

Secondly John Lewis are one the key partners standing behind the Leeds Fund which will see the Leeds Community Foundation dish out grants to very good causes around the city, including I’m sure many community groups here in LS10 and LS11.

Thirdly, one of the other tenants of Victoria Gate is a large casino, which as part of its licence has to pay money over to Leeds City Council to fund financial inclusion, debt advice and similar work in the city. We have lots of people in financial difficulty who could get help from a cash-strapped council through this initiative.

It’s not that I want to pour cold water on these benefits, but really? Is this this the best we can do as a city? It does rather a feel a bit like we’ve built this beautiful palace for the well-to-do from, let’s face it, the north of town, to do their shopping in. And in return we’ve been thrown some scraps from the table.

I can’t see that it’s doing much to improve social cohesion, but then I suspect that social cohesion is an aspiration that is always trumped by economic development.

Oh and that car park? I thought we were trying to keep cars out of the city centre, but then the target demographic for Victoria Gate don’t do public transport.

I’ll be on back next week with more of my views from South of the River. If you’re on Twitter, you can follow me: @BeestonJeremy.


10 Replies to “South of the River – Victoria”

  1. Good thought provoking article Jeremy. You are dead right on all your points.

    2 charities I work with received financial support from the Victoria Gate fund which were gratefully received. And the Shine Nail Bar were at the grand opening doing nails and promoting the project. And Hammerson’s have been incredibly generous in supporting projects/organisations who have had to re-locate due to their developments.

    In truth I think it is the best the city will ever do. A return on their £165 million is their understandable ambition. And by the looks of things it looks like a good bet. If only I had invested!

    I would argue expecting a capitalist free market debt driven city economy to deliver community transformation for all is expecting Queen Victoria to lay a golden egg. It just doesn’t ‘trickle down’.

    I would suggest creative solutions and ideas lie elsewhere and you can read about them every day on South Leeds Life..;-)

  2. Why should, and how could, a shopping precinct ever “improve social cohesion”? Why would economic development “always trump social cohesion”? And who are the “our” people you refer to?

    1. Hi Paul, thanks for your comment.

      The point I was trying to make wasn’t a specific criticism of Victoria Gate, after all it’s only a shopping centre. It was about what our priorities are as a city.

      Economic development always trumps social cohesion because we live in a capitalist system whereby you must grow or die. Leeds must welcome any growth or be seen as a failure. Promoting social inclusion is about investing in people rather than assets, but this doesn’t show up on the balance sheet. Worse, it could mean swapping zero hour contracts with real jobs which would hit the profit line.

      Our people are the readers of South Leeds Life. Ordinary people living in LS10 and LS11. Demographically, poorer, less healthy and living shorter lives than people in the north of town.

      1. Jeremy

        Thanks for the lesson in capitalism, but the idea that “economic development always trumps social cohesion” would suggest that its opposites – stagnation or austerity – would somehow benefit social cohesion. But then, what’s meant by “social cohesion”? Why, and how, would it need “investment in the people” to be promoted – can’t we “cohere” ourselves? And where would that investment come from without economic growth? But then your poor view of economic growth seems matched only by your impoverished view of the people of South Leeds, many of whom will no doubt enjoy shopping in, and some working in, the nice new shops in Victoria Gate oblivious to the perilous state of their social cohesion.

        1. If we defined ‘greater social cohesion’ as a more prosperous city with a narrowing gap between the poor and rich in Leeds, a more cohesive city in terms of equality of opportunity and a greater level of solidarity with the poor and the marginalised then I think we can realistically conclude that Leeds (businesses, council, private sector) has a fight on its hands. If I had to choose how to invest £165 million in Leeds I think a high-end shopping centre would be further down the list (although John Lewis is the biggest mutual in the UK) then say re-opening sure start centres, re-introducing the educational maintenance allowance or investing in a variety of social enterprises or cooperatives at work in Leeds. The problem arises when I require a return on the investment – not sure who should be paying me back – the children who secure their future, the individuals finding employment or the communities now with less council tax to pay as ‘reactive services’ are not longer so much in demand. Oh let’s build a shopping centre – it’s so much more simple.

  3. It’s all very shiney and pretty, but very little reflects me in town. The new part of the market that I’ve seen is mostly fad foodie shops, but you only need one food shop per trip into town, so I don’t see the point. Most of the shiney shopping areas are not for me, I’m neither thin enough nor rich enough to shop in Leeds. Thankfully I have the internet and since Leeds isn’t for me anymore I do pretty much all my shopping online.
    As a very small seller of things, a new business, I also am forced to do most of my selling online, since all these superduper mega centres are out of reach to small start up sellers like me.
    God knows what Marks & Spencer’s would be if they had started now instead of the days when you could make a go of it. Sadly even the new look market isn’t a welcome place for my little start up.
    I also think, while the Victoria centre has created jobs, how many of the new staff have come from shops shut down by all the shops closing in other parts of town – hence, not really new jobs at all, just same workforce, different location.
    Where is the pizazz that Leeds once had? The student friendly market in the Merrion centre with all the small fancy dress and joke shops? The dark arches with the interesting and peculiar small businesses? It’s just samey samey now. Pretty, shiney, posh, but boring.

  4. ….is another glitzy shopping precinct really what Leeds needs? It will only serve to give a minority the feeling that they are just that bit closer to London and the majority the sense that they are being priced out of the city……….the divide between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ in this city are becoming ever more apparent.

  5. I think if a business wants to invest and create sustainable and lasting jobs in Leeds that ought to be welcomed… I don’t shop in town much because parking is such a rip off – as it seems to be almost everywhere.

    When it comes to addressing the issue of rising inequality, lots of lessons can be learnt from countries like Switzerland, higher wages, longer life expectancy, and more equality in terms of living standards.

    Taxation is much lower, encouraging high levels of inward investment from abroad, which with a small population goes an awful long way toward providing public services. I’m not saying that this could be achieved here, but steps could be taken.

    Take low income people out of tax, and establish a competitive tax regime to encourage business, in particular start ups – get rid of employer’s NIC for example, which is just a tax on jobs.

    Reduce the size of the state to provide only essential services, and pass decision making down to local councils for matters such as transport, healthcare etc.

    Having everything in the power of a small clique at the top is good for nobody….

Comments are closed.