Why Leeds for Tory HQ? 'It's the unsung success story of the north'

Leeds will be home to a new Conservative party headquarters, it was announced at the Conservative virtual party conference on Saturday. The move is intended to cement the party’s position in a part of the country that voted strongly to help Boris Johnson secure a landslide victory in the last election.

Experts are not surprised about the choice of venue, citing the city’s strong economy, universities and good transport links. Neil Lee, a professor of economic geography at LSE, said: “Leeds has been the unsung success story of the north in that the economy there has done relatively well compared to other cities such as Sheffield. It has done pretty well, and Yorkshire is often quite a Conservative place – there is a strong conservative tradition there, which is quite important.”

Lee said the city was less staunchly remain in the Brexit referendum compared with other large cities. “It is quite a remain place, but not to the extent other places are. It also has good transport networks and it’s a nice place. Yorkshire is lovely.”

Outside London, Leeds has the third busiest railway station and the ninth busiest airport in terms of passenger numbers.

Lee said the UK was not very good at building affluent big cities, but Leeds was “a particular exception”. The city has the most diverse economy of all the UK’s main employment centres and has seen the fastest rate of growth in private-sector jobs of any city. Leeds had the third largest jobs total by local authority area at the beginning of 2015, with 480,000 in employment and self-employment.

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It also has four universities and the fourth largest student population in the country, as well as the fourth largest urban economy.

Lee said he would be interested to see if the party put its back-office function in Leeds or if key decision-makers would be going there. “The government is pushing things like a northern economy campus, where large numbers of civil servants will go,” he said. “Are there going to be decision-makers [in Leeds], or are they going to be people who are doing back-office stuff?

“The second question is whether this about keeping the UK very centralised and having a few of the decision-makers in Leeds, or about decentralising things a bit more. I don’t think we will know that for a while.”

Tim Heppell, a lecturer in British politics at Leeds University, said the decision to open a second Tory headquarters “will be motivated by the politics of symbolism”. “After claiming that their ambition is ‘levelling up’, and having acquired a number of northern constituencies within the so-called Red Wall, the Conservatives need to demonstrate their commitment to the north,” he said.

“The Labour party may well counter by arguing that this is presentational gloss: the impact of the austerity agenda has been disproportionately felt across the north, and the politics of substance [job security, wage increases] means more than the politics of symbolism.”

Henri Murison, director of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, said that from talking to those involved, he understood that Leeds had been chosen because it was “a good central location”. He added: “But I would say, whatever the symbolic importance, this move is marked by the fact it has come alongside party political game-playing delaying devolution, so it does undermine any impact it might have with the public.”

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