Bridging the gap between rich and poor in Leeds

In the latest article in our home town series, Liam Kay returns to Leeds to see how the local charity sector is dealing with rising inequality and continued austerity

Leeds city centre
Leeds city centre

Leeds is a city of contrasts. With its charming mix of glass and metal modernity and grand Victorian facades, the city blends new with old.

The contrasts go beyond the superficial, as the disparity between the city’s thriving local business and leisure industries and its large homeless population show. Dealing with rising inequality in the city is one of the biggest challenges the local charity sector faces.

In terms of wealth, 16 communities in Leeds are in the bottom 1 per cent in the country, and 100 are in the bottom 10 per cent, up from 88 a few years ago.

At the same time, however, the local economy is booming – it’s currently worth £64.6bn and is expected to increase by 21 per cent over the next decade, making Leeds the fastest-growing city in the UK, according to the city’s council. The Leeds city region has a population of more than three million and a workforce of 1.37 million.

Kate Hainsworth, chief executive of the local grant-maker the Leeds Community Foundation, says this inequality is a growing problem for the city.

"You do get extreme poverty butting up against extreme wealth," she says. "Some of the wealth creators in the city drive through the areas of great, great need within the city. It is a stark set of contrasts."

Austerity has had an impact too. Funding of the charity sector by Leeds City Council has remained static at about £110m over the past five years. Although not as bad as the reduction seen in other parts of the country, this has not kept up with increasing demand on charities’ services caused by cuts to the public sector.

Hannah Bailey, manager for sector support at Voluntary Action Leeds, the local council for voluntary service, says that continued austerity is starting to have real impacts on the city.

"We are eight years into austerity and, as was predicted, things are starting to come home to roost now," she says. "A lot of the problems and issues that the third sector is dealing with alongside our statutory partners could arguably be the results of reduced funding for certain services."

She says that both the sector and the local authority "have been pushed into fire-fighting mode", but this situation has been ameliorated by a positive relationship between the council and charities.

"In Leeds, the local authority needs the third sector, and it recognises that," says Chris Hollins, chair of VAL. "So they do what they can to support the third sector within the means available to them."

Hainsworth agrees. "We are quite lucky in Leeds to have a fairly mature third sector infrastructure and a local council that is willing and prepared to support that third sector infrastructure."

But despite the council’s support, smaller charities have still sometimes lost out to larger ones in the area. Of the council’s funding for charities, approximately half has gone to a group of 25 larger charities. This has had an impact on the almost 4,000 smaller community charities in the city.

Hainsworth says that, as a result of the funding challenges in the city, there has been a lot of "churn" and "stress" among the city’s smallest charities in the past two years.

"They are squeezed because income sources have dried up and it is more competitive, and demand has risen," she says. "There is that double whammy."

But Hainsworth says that charities in the area are increasingly turning to partnership working as a way of increasing their impact and achieving more with less.

The LCF traditionally focuses on funding start-up charities and growing voluntary organisations, and has recently refurbished an old fire station in Gipton, a deprived area of Leeds, to act as a hub for charities.

"When you walk in and feel the vibe of the place, it is like a business incubator," Hainsworth says about the old fire station. "At least there is a sense that Leeds as a city is investing in its third sector sufficiently to provide that opportunity for a range of groups."

Then there are the people of Leeds themselves, who remain willing to back the charity sector despite recent scandals and coverage of how charities spend their money – and even despite the prevalence of street fundraisers in the city centre.

"Leeds is a city of contrasts," Hainsworth says. "It is a city of great generosity, but also of scepticism in terms of how the charitable pound is spent. And that is right and proper."

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