There is no great secret about how Leeds managed to reinvent itself as a financial centre outside London in the 1990s. It was because HSBC decided to base the call centre there for their highly successful telephone bank First Direct.
They did so after research about which regional accent provided people with the most biggest sense of warm, trustworthy confidence. The result was overwhelmingly Yorkshire. It was a fascinating example of the benefits of not offshoring.
But Leeds ran with this advantage and has managed to capitalise on it, with imagination and a good local university or two and an effective local government base. It is now one of those handful of UK cities that fill you with confidence about the future.
It is a centre of effective innovation, perhaps most excitingly in healthcare, where – thanks to the efforts of the Centre for Innovation in Health Management, part of Leeds Business School – key people across the NHS meet regularly across the city to make things happen.
‘The economic benefit that Leeds possessed raised it up the ladder of outward
success but may also have entrenched the desperation of some of the population’
When there was a suggestion that one local hospital might forbid doctors from speaking to GPs, in case it prevented lucrative referrals, the doctors across the city got together and decided to carry on communicating. There is a powerful breath of fresh air about the place.
But even amidst this palpable success, and partly because of it, there are important questions which Leeds raises.
There is still huge poverty there. There is even more poverty next door in Bradford, the twin city which has continued to struggle under poor leadership and yesterday’s economic blueprints.
Leeds begs the questions. Even an obvious success story seems unable to find the right levers to spread economic success downwards.
But, of course, it is worse than that. It may even be that the very success of Leeds has concentrated the poverty, raised property prices, made home ownership more difficult, entrenched the difficulties of Bradford next door – the closest we get in the UK to the disastrous pattern in the US cities where success is twinned with failure next door, St Louis and East St Louis, Philadelphia and Camden, New Jersey.
Let’s put this at its starkest. The economic benefit that Leeds possessed, of having an educated population with a warm and friendly accent, has raised it up the ladder of outward success but may also have entrenched the desperation of some of the population.
And therein lies the great challenge for the Northern Powerhouse. The powers devolve to Manchester on 24 March, the day that Scotland would have become independent if it had voted that way in 2014.
Unless these innovative cities manage to develop ways in which they can build their tax base – not just by growing the value of their property – but by involving more of the population, then they will end up set freed by Whitehall only to be once again dependent on their handouts to keep their own populations alive.
David Boyle is a director of the New Weather Institute.