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In this guest blog Cllr Judith Blake, leader of Leeds City Council, explores how the city is taking forward the inclusive growth agenda. 

In Leeds, small business is big business.  The Leeds economy is forecast to grow by 50% over the next 20 years, outperforming the national economy. Creative and digital SMEs are central to our growth, with Leeds City Region having the UK's biggest annual increase in start-ups and scale-ups. Also central is an ambition to double the size of our city centre, using opportunities offered by a new transport hub including HS2, and a heritage waterfront.  And there’s the challenge: many of those SMEs cluster within our ‘South Bank’. Their natural fear is that an expanded city centre will mean extended city centre rents, pricing them out.

In a traditional growth environment, they might be right. In Leeds, we are doing things differently. I am proud to champion a clear vision of Leeds as a compassionate city with a strong economy. That desire to make Leeds the best city in the UK is supported by the city’s commercial businesses and third sector organisations as well as its public services.

On the back of engagement with partners in the city and region we’re publishing our Inclusive Growth strategy this month (click here to see it). In a world full of plans and strategies, in Leeds everything flows from just two: a Health and Wellbeing strategy and this strategy for Inclusive Growth. They might sound grand, but they are no-nonsense ‘action plans’ bringing the city’s institutions and communities together to improve the lives and life chances of everyone in Leeds.

One of the key findings from the RSA Inclusive Growth Commission reflects the Leeds vision very well: “Reducing inequality and deprivation can itself drive growth. Investment in public health, early years support, skills and employment services should go hand in hand with investment in physical infrastructure, and in business development.”  First and foremost our priority is to reduce poverty and tackle inequalities. In Lincoln Green, in Boggart Hill, in parts of Harehills or Beeston for example, people are still among the poorest in England – living excluded from the city’s economy and often dying young. We are working directly with people in these communities so they can both contribute to our growth and benefit from it.  

Another thing that I think marks our Inclusive Growth strategy out is that it is not necessarily asking people to ‘do more’, but to ‘do different’. It is based around 12 Big Ideas, and in turn they are based upon Leeds’ unique economic strengths and those of the City Region and the wider ‘Northern Powerhouse’:  As a city we recovered quickly from the recession. Our working age population is increasing at a higher rate than key EU cities such as Berlin, Madrid, and Milan. Our region is one of the youngest in the UK – digitally skilled and enterprising.

Of course we have our challenges: those inequalities in health, education, skills and pay, and how to become greener and cleaner. Our 12 Big Ideas aim to address these, and focus equally on growing people, places and productivity in the city centre but also the towns and economic hubs surrounding it.

I am delighted we are a city united behind this approach. As we publish our strategy we already have solid pledges from many businesses who will do, do more or do different. We have pledges from across our sectors: legal and financial, commerce, education, voluntary, sporting, health and public services.

These pledges are focussed on practical actions. They will raise our productivity, increase skills levels, foster innovation and develop infrastructure. They will generate more money for public services, reduce unemployment and increase wages. The Council’s adoption of a ‘real living wage’ sets a clear example. We are now actively seeking many more pledges, from all sectors. Our growth strategy is not about picking industries perceived as winners at the expense of others, but instead recognises that all sectors and all our communities have a role.

Which brings us back to those SMEs and securing their future role in a mixed-economy in Leeds’ extended city centre. The council has two distinctive buildings we own which we propose to refurbish to provide more workspace of exactly the type needed for these businesses to flourish and to make their mark, all within 5 minutes’ walk of the train station and close to other existing and award-winning spaces housing creative SMEs. 

‘Backing innovators, entrepreneurs and social enterprise’ and ‘doubling the size of the city centre’ are just two of our 12 Big Ideas. In a plan for Inclusive Growth they become mutually supportive rather than mutually exclusive. With Inclusive Growth at the heart of our city vision I’m convinced we will make Leeds the place where people and businesses grow.

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