From tanks to tacks, railway axles to rhubarb, Leeds' strength is the diversity of its economy. By Martin Wainwright.
For all its noble town hall, topped with a pillared cupola and guarded by crouching lions, Leeds has a Yorkshire aversion to letting outsiders know when all is thoroughly well. Caution is the middle name of the Leeds man or woman, and it masks a long story of steady, comfortable success. But recently this reticence has been wavering in the face of good fortune so obvious, and so highlighted by recession and decline among neighbours, that modesty began to appear perverse.
The NHS is moving its headquarters to Leeds; students voted Leeds University the most popular in the country; and the city's new West Yorkshire Playhouse and Opera North have established a cultural excellence akin to 19th century Manchester's. Manchester? Where is Manchester now, ask the brasher "Loiners" (the term for Leeds natives, coined from their alleged habit of loitering at lane-ends - loins in dialect for a gossip)?
With wildly uncharacteristic headiness, the Labour-controlled council and the Toryish chamber of commerce united recently to claim that Leeds was - a fortiori is - the Capital of the North. Manchester will no doubt hit back, and Leeds' old equals in the region, like Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Sheffield or Liverpool, will probably stick their oars in too. But the hilly sprawl of factories, offices and strikingly green and leafy suburbs on the River Aire has some respectable reasons for its claim. Builders' cranes have continued their insect movements on the local skyline throughout the recession. The dole queues are below average, wobbling between 6 and 7% during what appears to have been the nadir of this round of hard times. House prices have generally stayed as solid as the motto of the Leeds Permanent Building Society: Safe and Sound.
There are less happy sides to the picture, particularly a gradual and continuing slide in skilled manufacturing industry - long overtaken by the service sector which now offers 68% of local jobs. But two long-standing pillars still support the generally prosperous structure - and two new ones are reckoned among Loiners to have reinforced the city's position. Crucially, and unlike Woollen Bradford or steely Sheffield, Leeds has never depended on one dominant industry. In 1892 the then director of Leeds Chamber of Commerce told the Government's Labour Commission: "We have a very diversified trade." His present-day successor, Peter Cole-Johnson, scarcely bothers to change the syntax. "As ever, the great strength of Leeds' economy is its diversity," he says. "You think of the Potteries round Stoke, the car industry dominating the Midlands, Sheffield synonymous with steel. But here we have so many trades, that we can ride a recession. When one thing's going down, another's bound to be coming up." The range is huge, from tanks to tacks, from railway axles to rhubarb. And a local tradition of diversity within a firm is also maintained. In the late 1880s, the Leeds Express exalted that Thomas Green's boilers and steam engines were found "on Indian tea plantations, Brazil coffee plantations and in Van Diemen's Land" - but added that the company also made 6,000 lawnmowers a year and a very successful sausage-chopping machine.
Thomas Green would recognise dozens of like-minded entrepreneurs in the Leeds of today. One of them, Victor Watson, heads Monopoly-makers Waddingtons, whose empire spans a great deal more than board games. He cites the second traditional strength of Leeds: a skilled and sensible pool of workers and managers, a population with its feet on the ground. "I call them Yorkshire Puddings," he says, "and I include myself, as a Loiner born and bred."
This colourful cliche has specific applications in the business world. Watson finds that the attitude is specially helpful in weathering recession. "These 95% mortgages on very expensive houses which you read about in the South," he says. "You just wouldn't get people over-extending themselves like that here. Never. Not that we haven't had more than our share of entrepreneurs up here, in everything from textiles to inventing aircraft. But it's a cautious sort of enterprise."
Watson's view is reinforced when he wears another hat, as president of the Leeds and Holbeck Building Society, with an overview of West Yorkshire's house-buying habits. Prudence reigns. "It's no fluke that this part of the world was the birthplace and remains the headquarters of the building society movement," he says. "Thrift could be a lot of people's middle name."
The paradox of building society finance - that by borrowing short but lending long, the societies break a gold rule of commerce, also highlights another local Leeds tradition. The mutual nature of northern building societies and their clientele prevents disaster. Watson and his fellow-grandees in the movement, like Malcolm Barr of the Leeds Permanent, point out that many borrowers are also lenders; a feature which echoes the original getting-together of neighbours and friends which launched the concept of building societies. This West Yorkshire mateyness helps to account for another of the city's modern strengths: the amount of major commercial business given by local companies to Leeds, rather than London, financial and legal advisers.
It is no accident that Britain's largest partnership of solicitors outside London, Dibb Lupton Broomhead and Prior, is based on the Headrow, almost opposite the grand facade of Leeds town hall. And although they have made a particular name for themselves recently in expert insolvency advice, they and other local solicitors - and accountants - have won the trust of the area's core of quietly prosperous firms. Like those streets in London where one specialist retailer soon attracts satellites - pine furniture in Wandsworth Bridge Road, electrical gadgets in Tottenham Court Road - the big fish are escorted by smaller, but growing ones. Jeremy Shulman set up as a solicitor 10 years ago, with one secretary and two rooms. Now he has the whole of the building, four partners and 32 staff - and a shiny totem called the Leeds in Bloom Commercial Premises Shield, awarded this year for the excellence of his window-boxes. And that relates to one of the new pillars of Leeds.
Although the Health Department is still having trouble selling the city's delights to the 2,000 NHS staff, relocating to Leeds in 1993, apostles for the joys of living locally are legion. One of them, former Sunday Times correspondent Roger Ratcliffe, has gone to the lengths of publishing a comprehensive guide, Leeds Fax, which explains over 192 pages why he would live nowhere else. "Leeds has been reborn" he says, referring back to the polluted legacy of the 19th century's unbridled expansion (Dickens called the city "the beastliest place, one of the nastiest I know".)
Smoke control has been abetted by strict guardianship of the green belt and its spokes reach almost into the city centre - especially the Meanwood and Kirkstall valleys. In the latter, local residents and the city council have just beaten off a determined attempt by the Leeds Development Corporation to concrete and car-park large areas of greenery alongside the River Aire. When the battle reached national level, planners and London journalists alike were startled by some of the defenders' ammunition: Kirkstall wildflower garden operates a mini-moor, mini-meadow and mini-woodland within two miles of the town hall; next door, Bill Simpson's profitable market gardening business on the Aire's flood-meadows was certified by the Ministry of Agriculture as grade 1 agricultural land - a distinction largely confined to areas like East Anglia or the orchards of Evesham and Kent.
Leeds City Council itself runs several national collections of plant species and carries off horticultural prizes every year at the Great Yorkshire Show. This flower twist to the city's usual image, as big, busy and dirty, may help outsiders to make the viewing adjustments necessary to understand Leeds' second, and perhaps most significant modern advantage. Peter Coles-Johnson of the Chamber of Commerce skews a map of Europe sideways, to show that Dover and the Channel are not Britain's only border with the Continent. "Leeds has everything to gain from the country's ever-increasing interest in Europe, including the opening markets of the East," he says. "Liverpool and Manchester grew and flourished in the days when trade was with the Empire and America ... Now the balance favours us, on this side of the Pennines. The Humber ports are expanding and in just the right place for trade with central and eastern Europe. Our links from Leeds, along the motorways, are all in place."
Closer links with Europe will be helped by some of the city's other assets: the traditional internationalism of the still strong textile trade and the specialist departments of the university and polytechnic. And by a curious legacy of the local Victorian magnates - their cultured habit of disguising chimneys as artistic masterpieces of the Renaissance. Newly-cleaned, a precise copy of Giotto's campanile in Florence towers above Leeds city station; a more modest, scale version of the Lamberti tower in Verona stands alongside. Quite a welcome for a trade delegation from Fiat, or an Italian EEC commissioner.
Martin Wainwright is Northern correspondent of The Guardian.