Leeds is rightly proud of its City Centre. The shopping experience is second to none in the North, with the bustling, modern, multi-level Trinity Centre at its heart.
It boasts historic arcades, among the finest in Europe, those below Briggate transformed into an upmarket retail paradise stretching all the way from Harvey Nichols at one end to new-kid-on-the-block John Lewis at the other. It has a chocolate box offering in the Corn Exchange, now finding a purpose for itself again other than a stupendously photogenic backdrop for selfies, and a pretty market building, the charm of which disguises unresolved arguments over its purpose.
Overall, the retail heart of Leeds has survived the economic storms of the past decade remarkably intact; bruised, yes, clearly needing some TLC with a sprinkling of empty units and too many cheap banners tacked onto exquisite buildings, but compared with Bradford, where the opening of The Broadway turned the former shopping hub of Darley Street into dystopian wasteland, or relative to Huddersfield, or Wakefield, every new development has caused some disruption, but nothing catastrophic.
This resilience is thanks in no small part to the ‘indies’ – the small, independent traders who make up an important element of the mix both for retail and for food and drink. They’re also what makes the City Centre distinctive; businesses you literally can’t find anywhere else, because the owner is standing behind the counter or slaving over a hot stove creating something unique.
But scratch the surface, and all is not well. Many of these independent traders are feeling that the City frankly doesn’t care about them.
Traders like Nick Julian. He’s the man who brought Primo’s Hotdogs to the Corn Exchange, and Union Square to Merrion Way. I met him at another of his startups, Simpatico Pizza in the Queens Arcade. Just before opening time on the eve of his fortieth birthday, Nick was hefting a four-sack delivery of premium flour up to the second floor storeroom. And that, he feels, is what its like as an indie .. always doing the heavy lifting.
“It would be good if the first thing you got from the Council when you take on a unit like this was a letter saying ‘Welcome to Leeds. Thanks for having faith in the City. What can we do to help you succeed?’ Instead, the first I heard was a bill for £13,000 in rates”.
“I always tell people to look up in town. That’s where the problem is. People won’t take on the extra space above street level because it can mean a lot of extra costs”
Nick says the indie scene has never been more difficult for those trying to make a start in Leeds, and he’s calling for a three- or six-month grace period to let new businesses get established, with all the costs of fitting out and decorating a unit:
Just across the arcade, there’s the shuttered evidence that not every startup can be a success; a milkshake bar which closed last year opened its doors as a creperie just after Christmas. Two months later, it’s gone. That owner is now trading from a mobile unit, with many of the overheads eliminated.
If it’s tough off Briggate, it’s even more demanding in the so-called Northern Quarter. The Grand Arcade wooed shoppers a century ago with its grand clock, a flashy chiming affair with animatronic figures representing Britain and the Empire. After standing silent for years, the owners and traders there clubbed together to get it going again … but the arcade is still notably quiet in the early part of the week.
Claire Riley is co-owner of Our Handmade Collective; a gift shop that showcases work from dozens of individual artist-makers. She’s packed out at Christmas and was gearing up for a hectic Mothers’ Day rush, but at other times she too feels taken for granted by the City.
Claire says the problems are exacerbated by the current economic uncertainty surrounding Brexit, which means people aren’t spending money, and City Council bosses don’t seem to appreciate the pressure the indies are under:
The misgivings on the part of the independent traders are perhaps summed up best by Jo Myers, who together with husband Stu has built The Swine That Dines into an award-winning restaurant from what was originally a sandwich shop known as The Greedy Pig.
“The attitude of the Council is there’ll always be someone to take your place” she says. “If one small business fails, there’ll be another one along in a minute. They don’t appreciate what they’ve got.”
She cites marketing efforts like food fairs “where the objective is to maximise the income from a building like the Town Hall. I’m not a chain snob, but the chains can afford to come in for the day in the best locations. Leeds indies are priced out into spaces like Victoria Gardens. Who even knows where Victoria Gardens is?” (It’s the paved area outside the art gallery).
And Jo believes Leeds’ independent traders are facing a real threat which could soon force them out of the City Centre:
Issues raised by the independent traders were discussed at a meeting in March, addressed by Leeds City Council leader Judith Blake, who said the independent sector was already “recognised as one of the real strengths of Leeds”, and that its contribution “adds a real depth to what we offer”.
The council’s priority over the past five years has been to attract bigger players to key developments in the City Centre, such as John Lewis, to anchor the Victoria Gate complex. But now the focus is changing towards recognising the role of smaller traders.
Speaking after the meeting, the council’s Chief Officer for Economic Development, Eve Roodhouse, told me that a lot of issues, such as Nick Julian’s suggestion of a three month waiver on business rates, were difficult to implement because of the difficulty of defining who, exactly, was an ‘indie’, but she was sorry to hear of established independents feeling unappreciated.
And she promised, in particular, to look again at ways of liaising between council departments so new traders who come to the attention of the rates office would also get a warm welcome – as well as information about the many services Leeds City Council can offer to help them thrive in the City:
Editor’s Note: Over the coming months, we will be meeting a variety of indie traders across Leeds to look at the current picture, starting with the Grand Arcade.
Feature photograph of Our Handmade Collective is by Cath Kane.