Leeds City Council’s chief executive Tom Riordan speaks to Andrew Teacher about his 13-year tenure working to harness investment, unlocking thousands of new homes, and reversing regional brain drain. Railing against the “debating society” culture of national politics and the failure to invest in regional transport, he hails Leeds’ success attracting major new occupiers and its future as the country’s health-tech capital. Just don’t mention the football.
Fresh from hosting UKREiiF – the UK’s biggest real estate conference, with weather rivalling that of its continental equivalent in Cannes – Leeds city council boss Tom Riodan is buzzing.
The success of the event is a great example of the newfound confidence that Leeds has – as well as the fact that many conference-goers clearly prefer Great Northern Hospitality compared with the frosty welcome many of us have experienced in Cannes over the years.
It’s not just conference tourists choosing Leeds though. Since Riordan took up the post in 2010, Leeds has encouraged many high-profile new residents, including Channel 4, Sky UK, Burberry, the UK Infrastructure Bank and the Bank of England’s northern hub.
Pointing to the city centre’s regeneration and an ambitious housebuilding programme – which, combined with the surge in new business investment, has reversed the brain drain previously blighting the city – Riordan says that local government needs to be “at the heart of” any programme of urban revitalisation.
Whether it’s mayors or local authorities, “they have to be clearly empowered about strategic infrastructure delivery,” Riordan – who previously ran the region’s development agency, Yorkshire Forward – says. “That’s where you get the productivity right, and that’s where the problem is in the North of England at the moment.”
To put it simply: “The big problem for us is transport.”
Riordan thinks that under-investment in building an integrated rail, metro and bus service has held back the whole region.
“People talk about a productivity puzzle in the UK,” he observes. “There’s not a productivity puzzle in our part of the world. You just need a decent transport system.”
And yet, the city has done admirably in its housebuilding programme, hitting the top three nationally for five years in a row, with more than 3,000 built annually. He cites Moda and Apache Capital’s SOYO development as one example of world-leading regeneration and investment shaping the city.
Crucially, Leeds has a great variety of different tenures with a mix of denser stock in the city centre and what Riordan refers to as more “Scandinavian” districts elsewhere.
It’s all part of the reason why more and more students are staying in the city after graduating, turning a “brain drain” into what Riordan calls a “brain gain”. Leeds’ “innovation arc”, linking up a new hospital development with the city’s five universities and already successful tech sector provides a powerful incentive for graduates to stay on. Riordan describes it as an “American science park in the city centre”.
Public-private partnerships are providing the bulk of the investment for these projects – or “unsubsidised growth”, as Riordan terms it. Leeds is taking the quality and sustainability of its buildings and public spaces seriously, and it’s easy to see why so many companies see it as a safe bet for investment.
“The private sector is as responsible as us for the city’s success,” he says. “You can’t achieve your goals as a developer and as an investor unless you have a progressive council and progressive partners in universities, hospitals and the city. That’s the great opportunity here.” He believes that by ensuring there’s a level playing field for all parties and that investors have certainty over what’s expected of them, Leeds can continue to attract more private capital to drive further employment growth.
The health tech industry in particular has carved out a niche in the city across the public and private sectors, with TPP and EMIS, two large healthcare data firms, sitting alongside the Department of Health, and Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust – one of the biggest teaching hospitals in Europe.
“Collaboration is what it’s all about,” Riordan insists. And this applies beyond public-private partnerships. Across the North of England, public bodies have “a common interest to get the transport system across the North working better, and we lobby together on that.”
“The Northern Powerhouse idea didn’t work out because there wasn’t any money behind what was a really good idea,” he adds.
Another issue close to Riordan’s heart is improving the city’s mental health, particularly as he grew up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Unlike many, he realises the role that the built environment can play.
“We’re trying to galvanise the whole city around being more healthy and mindful,” he says. “In the use of public space, the way we’re developing the city, and the services we provide.”
Part of a deliberate approach to provision is in prevention rather than treatment, not just in healthcare but in wider social services. “We don’t help people just when they are made homeless,” Riordan notes. “We help them about two months before, help them with finances and housing, and any wraparound mental health support they need.”
It’s no surprise then that Leeds has two-thirds less homelessness than other cities in the UK.
Finally, Riordan directly addresses anyone who wants to get involved in Leeds’ growth journey: “We’re open for business.”
Leeds City Council
Managing Director, Real Estate
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