Future Cities – Part 3: The role of the City Authority

This is the third of what will hopefully be 4 posts on last week’s Future Cities conference at Leeds Social Sciences Institute.

Today, I will be discussing Tom Riordan’s talk on “The Challenges and Opportunities for the City of Leeds” Tom is Chief Executive of Leeds City Council, meaning that he heads the Executive arm of the council, as opposed to the political arm of elected representatives.

Tom opened by explaining that many of the UK Government Civil Service’s (known as “Whitehall” from the street on which it’s based) practices date back to the days of the British Empire and have effectively remained unchanged, and that there was a crisis of Whitehall’s engagement with the rest of the UK. In addition, the UK remains the most centralised country in the developed world.

Be a Civic Entrepreneur

In an age where London is at the centre of everything, it is important to think back to why Local Government was set up in the first place by civic leaders in business and social organisations, which was to empower people.

We need to bust the myth that enterprise only exists in the private sector and socially good things only happen in the public sector – there needs to be a closer partnership between the two, and in addition, citizens need to get more engaged in their cities.

The role of Government in a Future City

Government has three major roles in a future city: jobs, homes and growth. There is a tension between the haves and have nots, and tackling inequality should be part of the remit.

21st century infrastructure

A different interpretation is needed of infrastructure in the 21st century – it’s not just boys and their toys any more, although that is still a Treasury view. Energy from waste and district heating are priorities for Leeds, and also the use of (big) data through the Leeds Data Mill

Social Infrastructure

There is a need for a new social contract, recalibrating the relationship between citizens and the council. Among the key issues are an ageing population and tension between the old and young

The English Question

The centralisation of England is a key issue for the future, with 9 out of 10 decisions for Leeds taken outside the city.


We are lucky in Leeds to have a head of the Council who is so accessible. The desire to connect activity in business, individuals and Civil Society is admirable, but how would you reconcile the different needs of those constituencies? In terms of jobs, one of Leeds’ major problems has been that the types of jobs created in the last 15 years or so have been out of step with the skills and experience of those seeking jobs. Having said that, moving the focus to entrepreneurialism and a closer relationship between citizens and the council may go some way to rectifying this problem, given time.

Infrastructure is an interesting issue in British cities, given the paucity of transport infrastructure in general (although we have a Cycle Superhighway under construction, and hopefully a full scale BRT line soon), and the relationship between the finance and decisionmaking available to British Local Authorities relative to that available in most other wealthy countries. In this context, the creation of the district heating grid is something which is very welcome, in that is should reduce heating costs and environmental impact significantly for those in the city centre and inner areas.

But what of data? Collection of data on real time mobility is possible, and has already been used for research projects, where the movements of millions of mobile phones are tracked, and modes of travel are inferred by movement patterns and speeds. Potentially, this could be used for traffic signal control or real time management of buses and trains. The ‘smart grid’ could also be smarter, Leeds City Council is to install photovoltaics on council houses, and these collect data on their energy generation (an example being Fronius’ SolarWeb), which can be used to direct and manage demand based on generating yields.

Tom has hit on some of the major problems we face in the city, and the connection between those and the lack of financial and political power in the city. However, the emergence of Local Authority power in the 19th century did indeed stem from the actions of business leaders – but as to how much they were motivated by the needs of citizens, while the same people were often exploiting their workers for low pay, is another point on which we could have a lengthy discussion…

Next time…

In the final post of this series, I will be reporting on the projects presented by the University of Leeds


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