Leeds Looks to The Future

Dec. 21, 2004
The Northern England city builds on its historic manufacturing base.

I'll never forget the first time I saw Leeds," said the man at the cocktail party. "It was during the war, and I was on a train. We went for miles through this gorgeous countryside, and then I saw this great pall of smoke." That's the common impression of Leeds, the principal city of West Yorkshire and one of the cradles of the Industrial Revolution. The place's industrial past is everywhere in evidence. And it's no surprise that locals wince when you mention William Blake's reference to "dark Satanic mills." Yes, they admit. He was talking about these mills in this place. But Blake was also referring to Manchester, Sheffield and Newcastle, the other major cities of northern England where manufacturing on a large scale first made its mark. Today, however, Leeds looks completely unlike any of those places. Nor does the onetime textile capital resemble such burnt-out hulks as Lawrence, Mass., another place where the weaving of cotton was king. In fact, the remarkable thing about Leeds is that it looks like anything but a city whose glory days are buried in an idealized past. Leeds, actually, has the look, the feel, the vibe of a city whose future is infinitely more interesting than what might have come before. The sixth-largest city in the United Kingdom, Leeds has seen its population increase slightly in the last 20 years, while other cities in northern England have been in decline. Manchester, for example, has seen a loss of nearly 45% since its peak years before World War II. One major asset of Leeds is the forward-looking local government, which has all but closed off the city center to automobiles. For the uninitiated, the result is lots of going around in circles to try to find a downtown address, but those who know their way around can do almost anything they want to on foot. Unless it's raining, which it does a lot in Yorkshire. On a sunny day, though, the center of Leeds is teeming with people, many of them young (thanks to the presence of two large universities that bring roughly 60,000 students to the city every September). They come to spend outrageous amounts of money at Gieves & Hawkes, the swank London clothier that chose Leeds for its first provincial branch, or just to browse the many stalls at the city market, a rambling affair that will remind Americans of Baltimore's Lexington Market or Cleveland's West Side Market. But the overwhelming feeling in Leeds is that there was once money there -- witness the grand Victorian edifices and the impossibly ornate shopping arcades -- and that there is money there still. More evidence of money's presence is found in the eye-popping amount of construction going on in the city, where current and planned projects totaling an astounding 5 billion (US$8 billion) have been put forward in the last decade. This is all a tribute to the mixed economy of Leeds. Though once nearly synonymous with the manufacture of clothing -- indeed, it was Britain's capital of bespoke, or tailor-made, suits -- the city has always had other important manufacturing sectors. Even during its woolen heyday, Leeds boasted an important base in what the British call engineering, which describes the manufacturing of just about anything made of metal. But men's clothing was the bread and butter of Leeds and the surrounding cities, explains Peter Hill, chief executive of the Leeds Manufacturing Initiative, a public-private organization aimed at improving manufacturing practices in the city. "Bradford made and dyed the wool, Huddersfield made the cloth, and Leeds made the suits," says Hill. That industry went into terminal decline in the middle of the 20th century, and all but disappeared in the 1970s. Today, there are still specialists to be found -- such as a company that manufactures the green baize for pool and snooker tables -- but the clothing industry has virtually disappeared. Still, Leeds has emerged stronger. The city's location -- right in the center of Great Britain, equidistant between London and Edinburgh -- has been a major help. It's also at the heart of a region boasting a population of 2.2 million, with another million people within 30 minutes of the city. "Logistically, we believe [Leeds] is unbeatable," was the explanation by Arla Foods technical director Jens Termansen when the Scandinavian company chose the city for a massive distribution center. While it has a storied industrial past, Leeds has grown into an important center for the service sector, which employs 313,000 people. The city has become the second largest financial services center in the UK outside London, with the number of employees in the sector increasing by 26% since 1996. But it retains its strengths in manufacturing. Leeds is the third-largest employer in the sector in all of the United Kingdom, with more than 70,000 workers in manufacturing and engineering, and another 10,900 in the city's fast-growing print and publishing sector. The number of overall jobs in Leeds is expected to increase by 48,000 in the next decade. To counter the worldwide problem of attracting young people to manufacturing, the Leeds Manufacturing Initiative launched last year a program that brings students into such companies as Lever Faberg, Schneider Electric and Airedale International Air Conditioning. The idea, says Hill, is to change young people's view of what manufacturing is all about. To train the workers they already have, manufacturers in and around the city turn to the Leeds Training Trust (LTT), an organization funded by member companies. LTT programs, explains center manager Jackie Hawkesworth, help companies "reskill the existing workforce, from shop floor to management office." A different sort of training is offered at Leeds College of Technology's Print Media Centre, where students can earn a degree in printing technology using an innovative online classroom. More traditional students learn the nuts and bolts of operating and maintaining printing presses and related equipment, using machinery that is close to the latest in use by the large printing industry in the area. "We need to be responsive," explains the college's Ruth Charlton, who manages the printing technologies curriculum there. In addition to publishers, Leeds also plays host to a number of companies that manufacture for the industry, such as Agfa-Gevaert NV's British subsidiary, German press manufacturer Heidelberger Druckmaschinen AG and Kodak Polychrome Graphics. Those companies and others in the field work closely with Leeds College of Technology to keep the equipment and the curriculum up to date, Charlton says. Such initiatives have helped keep the printing and packaging sector in Leeds and neighboring Bradford -- which is, by some accounts, the largest in Europe -- healthy and strong, and have given Leeds the ability to forge ahead even after the decline and fall of its textile mills. "We lost a massive industry there," says Anne Morgan of the city-funded Leeds Development Authority. "But we picked ourselves up again, using the can-do attitude that West Yorkshire has always had."

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