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"gentrification" of Leeds

Experts ask: 'Is Leeds going in the right direction?'

Published Date: 18 December 2007
By Debbie Leigh
AN imposing collection of Leeds academics researching cities have joined the clamour objecting to the "gentrification" of Leeds.

The group of professors from Leeds University and Leeds Met have written an open letter to Leeds City Council posing the question: "Is Leeds going in the right direction?"

They were inspired by the Yorkshire Evening Post's City at the Crossroads series over the past two weeks, which has been looking at this very issue, along with the challenges facing the city in the future.

Rachael Unsworth, author of the City Living in Leeds reports in 2003, 2005 and 2007 and geography lecturer at Leeds University, said the decision to pen the letter and voice their opinions was also prompted by the proposed changes recently revealed for the Corn Exchange and Kirkgate Market.


She said: "That was the straw that broke the camel's back.

"But the wider issues raised in the letter are the long-term views of many of my colleagues."

She added: "We are used to thinking critically about the way cities change over time and we don't expect our voice alone to be the ultimate deciding factor but it's adding considered opinion to the debate."

The letter, signed by 14 city specialists, begins: "As academics researching and teaching on urban regeneration issues locally and internationally, we are concerned to learn that most traders from the Corn Exchange will be evicted after Christmas to make way for an 'International Food Emporium'.

"We also share the fears of stallholders from Kirkgate Market that the planned refurbishment will price many out of existence. Despite the obvious success story that Leeds has become in certain respects, these recent proposals confirm our fears that the overarching regeneration vision for the city centre is now taking Leeds in the wrong direction.

"The Kirkgate Market and the Corn Exchange are both icons of the Leeds landscape, truly unique results of the city's history. The plans currently tabled for their regeneration could strip away their character and turn them into yet more corporatised and exclusive shopping centres."

It continues: "Gentrification by its very nature actively works against efforts to narrow the gap.

In the obsession to compete with other cities, to go up a league and be the Barcelona of the North, Leeds is in danger of simply becoming a ‘clone city’, a place like anywhere else.”


Thousands of people have signed petitions in shops and online to “Save the Corn Exchange” since Zurich Assurance announced plans to kick out its tenants to make way for an upmarket food hall in the Grade I listed building and two protest demonstrations have been held.

The group of campaigning academics is following up its letter by holding a series of public debates.

They will complement a conference planned by the council for January – Developing a Vision for the City Centre – which will see key national and international speakers share their views.

The group has said it would welcome the council as as partner and is open to suggestions on themes for debate and how to put people’s suggestions into practice.

The first event will take place on February 28 at 6pm in the Rupert Beckett Lecture Theatre, University of Leeds.

Exchange or refund

In Leeds and all over Britain, urban quarters with character are being transformed into soulless, sanitised environments

* Ciara Leeming
*, Friday January 4 2008 16.00 GMT
* larger | smaller
* Article history

This month's closure of Leeds Corn Exchange is the latest blow to be struck against individuality in the name of regeneration.

The shopping centre - whose independent traders specialise in alternative fashion and curiosities - is being turned into an "international food emporium" by its leaseholder Zurich Assurance and the traders have been given until January 14 to leave.

The firm has yet to secure new tenants but promises a huge range of upmarket foodstuffs, plus a branded "statement" restaurant.

It claims the changes are essential to recoup £1.5m of refurbishment costs but traders suspect their wares and clientele - students, teenagers, goths and emos - are surplus to requirements in shiny, regenerated Leeds.

Last year the youths who loiter outside the centre were threatened with dispersal orders and asbos, and shop contracts specifically ban the sale of gothic, pagan or fetish clothing or accessories.

The surrounding Exchange Quarter is the centre of the city's vibrant alternative scene - gritty, grubby and full of cutting-edge nightspots, vintage shops and tattoo parlours. Elsewhere, the bland chain stores, dull chain bars and prestige department stores reign supreme. The evicted traders are struggling to find new premises in the booming city, where rents have leapt fourfold in a few years and vacant units are in short supply. Some will quit Leeds, while others are looking for jobs.

The plans have prompted some to question the direction of Leeds' regeneration and the squeezing out of quirky, independent shops and those whose lifestyles don't fit the norm.

Similar things are happening in other cities, where individuality is being crushed by profit-driven big business, intent on sleek, gentrified spaces and products that attract the "right sort" of consumer.

Quiggins, a legendary Liverpool hippy emporium that was home to 50 stalls, fell victim in 2006 to a massive regeneration scheme linked to the European capital of culture preparations.

Campaigners in Birmingham are fighting the planned closure of the Fiveways Centre - home to a progressive publishing company and a Fairtrade music venue - by its owners Mars Pension Trustees.

The future of Manchester's bohemian Afflecks Palace is uncertain. Stallholders have been in limbo since their leases ran out in June and any hike in rents - on what is a prime site - could put many out of business. London's Queens Market is also fighting for its survival.

Critics claim Leeds is on its way to becoming a soulless "clone town" peopled by wealthy yuppies and corporations - and with few spaces where citizens of all classes, ethnicities and ages can mingle. Their fears are compounded by plans to redevelop the city's Kirkgate Market.

In an open letter, 14 academics specialising in urban regeneration warned the drive to open exclusive retail centres is stripping away its character. They wrote:

"Gentrification by its very nature actively works against efforts to narrow the gap. It also erodes what is left of the public realm.

In the obsession to compete with other cities, to go up a league and be the Barcelona of the north, Leeds is in danger of simply becoming a 'clone city', a place like anywhere else.

And a clone town promotes clone people. As the city changes shape, there is a real danger that it actually narrows the type of people that it attracts."

Their warning should be heeded by other cities, where corporatised developments continue to suck the life from independent enterprise and leach away individuality.

The key to effective regeneration must be safeguarding a town's uniqueness, public spaces and sense of local identity - and small businesses are a vital part of that. This, surely, is exactly what makes many continental cities so special.