Next May, Westlife, one of the most successful boy bands ever, will be touring the UK, playing to their adoring fans in Nottingham, Liverpool, Sheffield, London, Birmingham, Cardiff, Glasgow, Manchester and Newcastle.
Shortly before their tour, Ronan Keating (I nearly described him as Westlife’s erstwhile lead singer, but of course, he was Boyzone - they sound so alike) will also be touring. He’s going to Glasgow, Sheffield, Aberdeen, Liverpool, Bristol, Birmingham, Brighton, Cardiff, London, Manchester, Oxford, Nottingham, Bournemouth and Blackpool. There is one rather important city missing from these lists. Both these major acts are going to far-flung corners of Britain, but they are not coming to Leeds. And why not? Most likely because there is no venue big enough to take them.
Even with the welcome addition of the Carling Academy onto the Leeds music scene, there is simply nowhere big enough in the city to host an act likely to draw thousands of people. “Everyone in the music industry tells me they believe Leeds is the missing piece in the picture,” says Coun Andrew Carter, currently joint leader of Leeds City Council. And it’s not just the music industry that is regretting lost opportunities. Big events like pop concerts do wonders for the local night-time economy, as anyone who has tried to get a table at a restaurant in Manchester’s northern quarter when there is a show on at the MEN Arena can attest. The fact that some pop megastar chooses to turn up on stage and say, “Good evening, Manchester” or “Good evening, Birmingham”, can do wonders for your city’s profile, too.
That’s why those with an interest in attracting younger people to the city – the universities and the professions, for example – feel Leeds is missing out. Even if they wouldn’t dream of listening to a Westlife song, the thinking goes, young people will be less inclined to come here if they think Leeds is so off the map that even these blue-eyed Irish chart-toppers don’t come here.
Put together a group of the city’s business and political leaders to discuss what’s wrong with the city, and sure enough, the absence of a large venue will be top of the list.
So the announcement that the building of a 12,500-seater arena in the city can go ahead should be welcome news, particularly as the £80m arena will secure more than 500 jobs directly and the Government has allowed Yorkshire Forward to spend an extra £4.88m on the project on top of the £5m that had already been committed.
But oh, if only such a story of happy consensus were true. For the history of the Leeds Arena is littered with false dawns, political bickering and abandoned plans. It may be drawing to a close now, but after well over a decade of discussion on the issue, there will be many who are thinking, “and about time, too”. For one thing, there is that little matter of the Government having to give its approval for the fund. Carter says such intervention was not necessary, particularly when you consider that the Leeds Arena will be 59 per cent privately funded.
The Liverpool Arena, by contrast, was 100 per cent public sector funded. “I think it’s a very poor show,” he says. “The Government set up these regional development agencies and gave them delegated powers to decide on projects that require public funding on a relatively small scale like this. We had agreed the package with Yorkshire Forward for this four years ago, and it was only last-minute pressure at the eleventh hour from a group of Sheffield MPs that made the Government call it in.” Those MPs were protesting about the likely impact the new arena might have on the existing Sheffield Arena.
And in one important respect, they succeeded.
Yorkshire Forward and Leeds City Council were originally looking for a total £18m in permitted public funding, so the £9.88m being offered now does seem watered down.
Carter, who claims the project would have gone ahead anyway, with or without the extra Yorkshire Forward money, says this shortfall will now have to be made up by the proposed payback period for the arena being extended by two to three years.
But the success of the Sheffield MPs clearly irks him. “Sheffield already gets double the money Leeds gets from Yorkshire Forward,” he says.
“If they are worried about the Sheffield Arena so much, why didn’t Sheffield prioritise it more when they were discussing their allocation of funding with Yorkshire Forward? The truth is, they chose to spend it on other things.” Clive Betts, one of the MPs concerned, is certainly unrepentant. Even the relatively smaller amount the Leeds project has got should not have been granted, he says. Leeds can have any arena it wants, he says – but not with Yorkshire Forward money.
“I don’t think it is right that a publicly funded body that is supposed to represent the whole of Yorkshire should be funding a new business that will have such a devastating impact on an existing one,” he says. Yorkshire Forward chief executive Tom Riordan says he understands the MPs’ concerns. “But we have to make our investment decisions based on the potential benefits for the region as a whole,” he says.
“We cannot ignore the opportunity for doubling visitor numbers to Yorkshire and Humber.” Betts claims such talk is exactly the problem with the way the whole project has been looked at.
There has, he claims, been far too much focus on the positive impacts, and, except in a report Sheffield City Council commissioned, little attention given to the negative. “That Sheffield report showed that a quarter of Sheffield Arena’s potential revenue would be taken away by this,” he says. Certainly Steve Brailey, chief executive of Sheffield International Ventures, which runs the Arena and other venues in Sheffield, is livid.
“It is an absolute outrage that the Government is providing this funding to a scheme that will undermine jobs in Sheffield,” he says. He says SIV is now “considering our next steps” as some in the city claim that at the moment the Arena is only just breaking even. Whatever the truth of that may be, there are plenty who would argue there is no reason why two arenas cannot exist relatively close by.
“Manchester has four big venues, and they don’t complain about each other,” says Dirk Mischendahl, managing director of Leeds based events company Logistik, and a board member of both Marketing Leeds and Welcome to Yorkshire. Carter claims that Manchester has been 100 per cent supportive of Leeds’ plans. You might have thought a Labour council (perhaps like the Sheffield MPs) would want to see the Tory leader of Leeds City Council’s pet project fail, but apparently not. And the new Leeds Arena is also going to be run by the same company that runs the MEN Arena. Mike Firth, organiser of the Yorkshire International Business Convention (YIBC), also denies claims about Sheffield suffering.
“You could say there shouldn’t be arenas in Manchester or Birmingham, either,” he says. “Why should Leeds lose out just because it happens to fall under the same RDA?” But he is not totally happy with the new proposal. And there are plenty of others even within Leeds itself who may be feeling hard done by. The Council’s chosen site for the arena – an area of land by Claypit Lane in the north of the city that was going to be developed by Castlemore until it pulled out - was a relative latecomer among suggested sites.
The Council bought the land for £6m in November 2008, but before then had openly invited suggestions from other parties as to where it should be sited. One of these had come from Jan Fletcher, one of Yorkshire’s most respected property developers, who felt a site in Sweet Street in Holbeck would be suitable.
Then another consortium wanted to develop land near Leeds Utd’s Elland Road stadium. A year or so prior to that yet another scheme was being heavily promoted, this time to build an arena at Clarence Dock. This last bid would have been entirely private sector funded – or so it was claimed. Carter says that when you got down to the nitty gritty, all three of these proposals would actually have involved far more public sector money than their backers had initially alleged.
Jan Fletcher may disagree. She had been planning to take the Council to court over its decision not to back her bid. She would not comment on this action for this article.
But all three of these other sites would have been to the south of the city, close to either the railway station or the M621 motorway. By contrast, the Claypit Lane site is a good quarter of an hour walk from the station, and not really near any long-distance motorway. Firth says it is a bad choice.
“There is virtually no car parking at the site,” he says. “People say you can use public transport, but they aren’t really thinking of the customer when they say that.” Carter says that, on the contrary, making people walk through the city centre to get to the arena will do wonders for the city’s night-time economy. But the other bone of contention is developments taking place in other Yorkshire towns, in particular Harrogate.
The Harrogate International Centre is about to start on a £13m upgrade, with funding coming in equal measure again from the local council and Yorkshire Forward.
This upgrade will see the building of two new event halls totaling 3,400sq m, which will also be 6 metres high.
The centre says such dimensions are to attract the kind of events it is looking to entice away from, among others, the likes of Manchester Central and the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre in Glasgow. The extension will also enable it to run two events simultaneously.
And yet, when plans for the new venue in Leeds were first mooted, they included some kind of conference venue as well. They are nowhere to be seen in the new plan. Has there been some kind of deal behind the scenes to avoid any conflict here? Carter insists not.
“Harrogate has been very supportive of us, and we of them,” he says. “They have experience of conferences. We need diversity.” Comments by Wallace Sampson, chief executive of Harrogate Borough Council, might suggest otherwise. He recently said he was pleased to see that, as a result of discussions between the two councils, “Leeds has moved its ideas from being a conference venue to being an events venue”.
Such split decisions do not please Firth, who says they are symptomatic of current thinking among the powers that be in Yorkshire.
He currently runs the YIBC at the Yorkshire Event Centre in Harrogate – a completely separate entity to the HIC – and says he would never dream of holding it at the HIC because of traffic issues.
“If we want to compete with Manchester and Birmingham, we really do need not just an arena, but conference and exhibition facilities, and the place for those is Leeds,” he says.
“Harrogate is too clogged-up. But we never have big city thinking in Yorkshire.
That’s why we are always playing catch-up.” Mischendahl too, is not convinced of the merits of Harrogate as a conference venue because of its poor transport links.
He is currently researching the possibility of setting up another conference centre in Leeds with other business partners. But Carter and others will be pleased to know that he does not consider those plans any reason why the Leeds Arena itself should not go ahead. The man who was responsible for bringing the Love Parade to Leeds – sparking similar events which have now culminated in the Leeds Festival – has in the past claimed such a large venue would be a white elephant. But not any more. There is a £1bn business tourism industry out there, he says, and there is plenty for everyone. “We have now been through the consultation,” he says, “and it would be a great mistake to turn back now. We would lose all credibility as the great city we are if we did that.”
Our BQ Bulletin emails will land in your inbox at 7.30am, Monday to Friday, with a mix of the latest local business news, national news, and features to inspire you. Sign up here!
Click here to read our privacy statement