Published: 26th Jul 2016

Leeds is getting back on its feet after being hit by floods during the Christmas period, but what can the crisis teach the city about its levels of community and economic resilience?

‘Never let a good crisis go to waste,’ said Winston Churchill. When Storm Eva hit Leeds on Christmas Day 2015, causing the River Aire to break its banks, the city’s communities came out in force.

On Kirkstall Road, a city centre artery that was badly affected by the flooding, local councillor Lucinda Yeadon and Phil Marken, who runs Open Source Arts, separately began mobilising a clean-up.

From one end of the road, councillor Yeadon used social media and her contacts at the council to organise volunteers and the resources of the public sector. At the other end Phil Marken – having returned from his Christmas break to find his new warehouse flooded – set up a base for the clean up operation from its mezzanine. The two met in the middle and soon hordes of volunteers were spending their Christmas break clearing out mud from shops, pubs and roads, fuelled by donated food. The volunteer support and donations of equipment helped local businesses get back up and running quickly, and unleashed a wave of solidarity across the city. One shop owner in an unaffected part of the city offered a new home to the snakes and other reptiles that were left homeless when a pet shop – Tyrannosaurus Pets – was flooded.

‘We need new institutions that are so effective

that the traditional ones are forced to give space’

The local newspaper called the response ‘defiant’, and it was one that combined the can-do attitude of its citizens with a strong – and flexible – local state.

As councillor Yeadon said the ‘flood waters washed council bureaucracy away for a few weeks’, helping volunteers and the state work together in partnership.

As the waters rose, citizens stepped into leadership roles in their neighbourhoods, enabled by the council. But as the floodwaters retreat, will power return to the same channels? Can the city use the crisis to build on the spirit it generated and challenge the status quo?

This month a group of people from the community, public, small business and university sectors in the city met at a CLES, New Start and NEF event to discuss what the response to the Christmas floods says about the city’s resilience levels. The crisis may have revealed the strengths of the city but can the solidarity and partnership working be maintained?

Building a civic ‘middle’

As cities become subject to shocks – be they economic, social or climate-related – there is an increased focus on assessing their levels of resilience. The Centre for Local Economic Strategies has developed a place resilience framework to help local areas understand their strengths and weaknesses and help them navigate change, whether that change is due to public sector cuts, demographic shifts or environmental uncertainties.

It could be argued that an area’s ability to be ‘change ready’ says much more about that place’s success than do traditional measures, such as GVA growth, and in CLES’s resilience framework, economic development is blended with and inseparable from ‘softer’ policies such as community empowerment and participation and environmental sustainability. Resilience at its essence is about recognizing the inter-connectedness of a place and the importance within that place of connections and relationships, between the public, private and social sectors.

Thus, cities that are dependent for their economic success on a single industry or isolated private sector activity are more vulnerable than those that have many trades, interlinked supply chains, strong public/social partnerships, and high levels of community ownership.

Leeds was once known as the city of a hundred trades and is a significant financial hub and shopping destination, as well as the UK’s third biggest manufacturing centre. But, despite its diversity, it contracted sharply during the 2008 recession, with the number of jobs falling by 22,900 between 2008 and 2011.

While parts of the city’s economy have bounced back, its recovery is not being spread evenly. While GVA per worker reached £43,000 in 2011, above the core city average, that overall figure masks the city’s growing inequality.

Figures from the Centre for Cities City Outlook report of 2015 showed that Leeds was the most unequal city in the UK outside of London, with 15% unemployment in some areas. The Leeds Community Foundation puts the level of child poverty in the city at 23% – around 30,000 children.

Mark Law, chief executive of Barca, described the city’s success as mushroom-shaped, with the benefits flowing through the centre and the outer suburbs and missing out inner city areas. As David Boyle argues in this edition, the economic success of the city has entrenched its poverty levels.

Leeds council has not ducked from the challenges of inequality the city faces; its partnership with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation around inclusive growth in the Leeds city region, and its civic enterprise and Strong Economy, Compassionate City agendas are admirable. Chief executive of the council Tom Riordan told New Start, ‘the main thing is we don’t want to mimic London. We don’t want to be that sort of city’.

But for many in the city a step change is needed. They want to see the power of big business tamed and the city’s wealth creators take on greater responsibility. And they want to build new mechanisms for people and communities to have greater control over what happens in their city.

Delegates at the event spoke of the lack of a ‘middle’ in the city and the need for stronger and more participative civic institutions to create the structural changes needed around transport and connectivity, low carbon projects, better jobs and greater equality.

‘We need civic institutions that are of a parallel thickness to those of the state and big business. We need institutions that are so effective that the traditional are forced to give space – a strong local state but with social democracy behind it.’