In developing the strategy discussions were rich and varied, as was our research into how cities across the world respond to, support and utilise culture.

The following section touches both on the common threads in those discussions and research, and sets the context for the Culture Strategy. 

“They were the makers of the world” 


Taken from the poem Every Age Has Its Own Gods by Bee Smith 

Local context

Leeds is the 3rd largest city in the UK by population, with an economy worth an estimated £21.3bn GVA. It is at the heart of the Leeds City Region, which has a population of 3 million. Leeds is ranked as a Gamma World City by the Globalization and World Cities Research Network classing it as a major city with a key role in linking the wider region to the world economy. It is by far the largest economy and employer in the city region, and acts as a major travel and tourism gateway. It has the busiest railway station in the north of England, a transport hub which will soon see a bigger daily footfall than Gatwick Airport.

Leeds is a strong university city. In addition to the qualities of our universities and colleges, students are attracted by the nightlife, fast-growing independent food and drink scene and cultural offer. Despite this draw the city struggles to retain graduates from its universities with many returning home after studies. The city does attract graduates from other cities but the supply of graduate posts exceeds the available talent. Conversely the supply of arts and culture graduates outstrips the available vacancies and opportunities in this field. As the architects of our future the city needs to better understand and retain the graduates that are so attracted to life in Leeds at the start of their careers.

A surprisingly green city, Leeds City Council manages 4,000 hectares of green space encompassing parks, woodland, nature reserves and 101 allotments across the city, on the doorstep of the Yorkshire Dales and with easy access to London, Manchester and Edinburgh. A relatively healthy city, life expectancy in Leeds has increased with people living an average of 81 years and the city has renewed its efforts to ensure that Leeds can be enjoyed at any age. Leeds is perceived to have a good quality of life, reflected by the 82% of residents satisfied with their local area as a place to live.

However, Leeds is rapidly changing and will look and feel vastly different by 2030. There are 774,060 people living in Leeds and estimates that the population will grow to 819,000 by 2024 and exceed 1,000,000 by 2030.

The 2011 census did not collect data on sexual orientation but Stonewall estimates that for a city with a population of this size approximately 10% of that population will identify as LGBTQIA. Although Leeds has strong networks across this community and hosts the largest free Pride event in the UK, many of the people we spoke to in creating this strategy still faced xenophobia and violence and noted a lack of ‘safe spaces’ in the city often feeling that their culture is marginalised and ‘underground’.

Of the current population 140 ethnic groups are represented. There are 170 languages spoken, the most common other than English are: Polish (6,717 people), Urdu (4,989 people) and Punjabi (4,537 people) - and this will continue to fluctuate as migration patterns change. Other communities such as the gypsy and traveller community are significantly under-represented in the available data as not all are registered, the most accurate count at 2010 registers a gypsy and traveller community of 3,000 people in Leeds, 50% of which were thought to be under 25 years old.

A 2014 report by the Migrant Access Partnership suggested that, although Leeds does not have the largest numbers of migrants in the UK outside of London, it does have the greatest diversity in terms of country of origin, presenting its own unique opportunities and challenges in a modern, intercultural society.

The city will be transformed physically by 2030. We have a target to build 70,000 new homes by 2033, some of which will appear in new estates and others will be attached to existing communities. The city centre will double in size with the development of South Bank meeting residential communities in the south. The transport system will undergo a major overhaul upgrading road networks, introducing cycle paths, developing new transport systems and working towards a target of reducing damaging carbon emission by 80% by 2050, in a city where 53.6% of commuters still drive to work. Our current infrastructure, partly suffering from describing itself as ‘Motorway City of the North’ in the 1970s, does not service the city well with transport being a high concern for residents.

As digital technologies such as 5G develop further there will be more challenges as the ‘smart city’ movement gathers pace and requires much needed upgrades to infrastructure to service this growing demand. That said, the transformation of the city must be balanced with a responsible and sustainable approach and there are high penalties for landfill waste and a recycling target of 40% by 2020 to deliver on the city’s Climate Change Strategy.

With the scale of ambition and energy in the city it would be easy to imagine a modern utopia by 2030, but not everyone enjoys the same quality of life across Leeds.

In 2014 11.09% of households experienced fuel poverty in Leeds compared to the national average of 10.9%. Some areas of the city have a life expectancy of 10 years less than the city average, in others unemployment is handed from generation to generation. It is estimated that 785 (5.2%) of our young people are not in education, employment or training and 1,263 children are currently in local authority care. Of our neighbourhoods 105 are in the top 10% of most deprived areas nationally, with 148 ranking in the top 20% of UK deprived neighbourhoods.

While some in the city do enjoy increased life expectancy, social mobility, and access to high quality cultural activity, better jobs and high quality housing, others live in deepening poverty. As some in the city enjoy Michelin starred gastronomy, others find themselves queueing at food banks. Figures provided by The Trussell Trust who operate four of the city’s food banks show that in 2013/14 the combined number of three day emergency food parcels given to those in need was 2,791, by 2016/17 this figure had soared to 15,771.

In conversations there was a strong view that our international reach is undersold, our national profile is low, and our voice has often been timid. Our relationship with our northern counterparts has been more often one of competition than companionship.

As local authorities face increasingly challenging financial conditions, the ambition to become Best City 2030 requires Leeds to radically rethink how it operates and connects across communities, organisations and departments to achieve a greater quality of life for everyone in the city.

Across each of the areas described above from developing a greater international outlook, celebrating the diversity of the city, growing the economy, and reducing unemployment to increasing health and wellbeing, resolving disconnect between communities and reducing poverty and isolation, culture has an integral role to play and must be central to our future development as a city.

The Vision for Leeds 2011-2030 canvased the city for its views on what would make Leeds the Best City, not the richest or biggest but the best for quality for of life. There were seven priorities of which more than half had a cultural dimension: developing a great culture and entertainment offer; creating a cleaner and greener city; fostering good community relations; and a great community spirit.  Six years into that vision and culture consistently remains high on the public’s agenda with a recent South Bank consultation prioritising culture as the second most important factor in the future development of that area. Culture has the opportunity to become the golden thread that runs throughout all policy areas, unifying our collective ambitions and delivering on our vision for Best City 2030.

Organisations and individuals across Leeds are already achieving great things with culture at their heart. From creating world class art which builds an international reputation for the city, reframing our understanding of the world, to creating the makers, thinkers and activists of the future. It can also play a vital role in retaining graduates, improving health and well-being, bringing communities together and resolving tensions.

The city’s cultural offer includes a number of large organisations that have been generations in the making. Leeds College of Music gave Europe its first Jazz qualification and celebrated turning 50 in 2016, with Phoenix Dance blowing out the candles on 35 years the same year. Leeds West Indian Carnival, Europe’s oldest, will celebrate 50 years in 2017, alongside 40 years of Henry Moore Institute. Over the next five years Leeds Grand Theatre will be 140 years old, Opera North will turn 40, Northern Ballet will celebrate 50 years, West Yorkshire Playhouse will turn 30, and Northern Film School will hit half a century.

Leeds City Museum is the grandfather of them all and will turn 200 in 2019 in a city which has the largest local authority museum service in the UK contributing to an audience of 2.25 million per year for museums and heritage.  National museums including The Royal Armouries and Thackray Medical Museum, two of the country’s greatest country houses in Temple Newsam and Harewood House and collections across Leeds Museums and Galleries and the University of Leeds which are designated of national and international importance all add to this impressive and diverse mix.

Our city has also continually created space for new voices to add to this vibrant tapestry. The Tetley has just turned three after reinvigorating the city’s iconic brewery, Transform Festival has flown the West Yorkshire Playhouse nest and has just completed its second year as an independent festival and Leeds Indie Food Festival has just completed its fourth year celebrating the city’s growing independent food and drink culture. Not only does this vast range of organisations present remarkable shows, the majority also run extensive engagement programmes benefiting millions of people every year.

This year some of our community galas will celebrate twenty years come rain or shine, and the iconic Leeds Festival will turn 20. On any weekend from May through to August there will be a number of festivals, fairs and feasts to choose from – helping build communities through huge amounts of mostly voluntary effort, from Garforth to Wetherby, Otley, Morley and everywhere in between. Alongside this Leeds has one of the largest celebrations of social history celebrating an industrious past filled with pottery, ceramics, tailoring and engineering through hundreds of community and volunteer events as part of the annual Heritage Open Days initiative, which was founded by the Council of Europe 22 years ago and continues to grow in the city each year.

The city benefits from a wide range of galleries, festivals and venues which provide cultural attractions for both popular and niche interests and continues to add to this, most recently with the innovatively designed First Direct Arena. In addition to the range of cultural venues, green spaces, historic mills and community venues the city is also home to some of the region’s best known sporting achievements from world-class Test Cricket at Yorkshire County Cricket Club’s Headingley home, to their neighbours Leeds Rhinos who regularly host 18,000 fans cheering their team to victory and Elland Road with its steadfast European fan base waiting patiently for glory. More recently the city has taken sport to the streets with the hosting of the Tour de France Grand Depart in 2014, city-wide celebrations for the Rugby World Cup in 2015 and successfully becoming the new home for the UK leg of the World Triathlon Series from 2016 onwards.

Even with a burgeoning independent scene, a thriving community culture, illustrious sports record and such an array of long standing, well respected cultural producers and venues, the city’s cultural offer has, as yet, not achieved the wide national and international recognition it is capable of and not all of the city’s residents take advantage of what is on offer.

The city’s cultural activity has always been considered key to improving the quality of life by its residents, but is often overshadowed by the challenges the city faces as opposed to being an integral part of the solutions to overcoming these challenges.

Yet, it is this unique cocktail of ingredients that make our city an exciting place to build a life, create work, learn skills, and grow a business, which presents a new opportunity for the culture sector of the city to step up and take the lead. In order to grasp this opportunity we must raise our ambitions.

It is not enough to simply exist here; our cultural organisations must immerse themselves in the city. Our artists, creators, makers and producers can create a new kind of city where culture doesn’t just respond to the agenda, but sets it.

Global context

Leeds is not alone in some of the issues outlined above. Cities around the world face population growth and demographic change, influxes of migration, climate change, the rapid advancement of technology and infrastructure, and the balance of retaining a unique identity and heritage whilst being open to the world and adaptable to globalisation. As part of the research for this strategy we have read about and spoken to other cities to understand how they are looking at the role of culture in the 21st century.

For a city of this size, Leeds itself does not have a strong cultural profile internationally, or even nationally, despite our many strengths. Even being home to the birth of the moving image has not really put us on the map. The city also sits within a region, Yorkshire, which has far greater resonance internationally and a stronger ‘brand’.

Universities, businesses, cultural organisations and individuals have rich international networks but the city as a whole, until relatively recently, has not thought of or promoted itself in global terms.

Although Leeds is increasingly positioned as an international city, the referendum results highlighted its differences, with an almost equal vote for leave and remain. Leeds accounts for 37% of EU migrants in the Leeds City Region providing a valuable labour market for local businesses and enriching the city’s cultural offer and global reach. With Article 50 triggered and the outcome of Brexit negotiations remaining uncertain Leeds will have to work hard to build relationships, maintain global partnerships and support all of its communities equally.

With the rapid pace of change there is an opportunity to strengthen our international presence. Whether you celebrate the UK’s imminent exit from the European Union or mourn it, now is the time when new relationships and new challenges and opportunities will emerge for both nation states, and more importantly for cities.

United Cities and Local Government (UCLG) is an international network of cities sharing ideas, lobbying for international policy change, researching the future of cities and providing guidance, insight and frameworks for addressing major global issues at city level.

In 2004 UCLG’s International Committee on Culture was founded and created a framework for how cities could use culture to respond to global issues. The Committee has outlined nine key areas that Culture Strategies should consider in order to be globally relevant and connected. This is known as Agenda 21 for Culture, and a detailed description of each area can be found in Appendix 4.

Leeds has committed to undertaking a co-produced Culture Strategy focusing on the specific issues and challenges that the people of the city have identified as relevant and pertinent to them. However in the development of the Culture Strategy it has become clear that the city shares many of the key principles outlined by Agenda 21 for Culture, specifically:

  • Culture is a basic human right and everyone in the city has the right to celebrate & create their culture.
  • A new central role for culture is needed, where culture in all its forms is interwoven throughout formal policy areas.
  • The governance of cultural activity should be a shared responsibility. It is not the role of any single organisation or sector but must be shared across the city with everyone playing and active part.
  • The definition of culture must be broad enough to encompass the tension between tradition and modernity, the shifting demographic and the impacts of globalisation and digitisation.

Important Information