How Leeds is making its name as a digital powerhouse

As the digital economy in cities like Leeds continues to thrive, it’s becoming clear that London no longer has a monopoly when it comes to tech roles.

UK | United Kingdom  >  England  >  Leeds  >  River Aire / Granary Wharf
Tim Lumley

The city of Leeds has the fastest scaleup growth in the north of England, with its digital sector employing more than 100,000 people and contributing £6.5 billion to the City Region economy. Home to organisations such as NHSX and NHS Digital, it is often thought of as the health tech capital of the UK.

A decade ago, however, the scene was very different. Stuart Clarke, founder and director of Paceline, an organisation that helps growing technology companies known as “tech scaleups,” said that five or ten years ago, if you were a technology graduate looking for a role at a big firm or an individual looking to start a tech company, you likely would have found yourself in London.

While London is still seen by many as the tech capital of the UK, the city is facing stiff competition from a number of thriving tech hubs across the country. A prime example is Yorkshire, where the region’s digital industries have been designated the fastest growing in the UK, on track to create an extra 42,000 digital jobs by the end of 2025.

“We’ve had Burberry, Channel 4 [move operations to Leeds]. We’ve had UtterBerry [a smart sensor company] just announce plans to move into the area and create 800 jobs. It’s growing fast and because of that, we’re keeping more graduates from the universities, we’re having more people move into the area, and we’re having lots of returners,” Clarke said. “Those people that did move to London 10 years ago are now thinking, ‘I can come up to Leeds and keep my career going.’”

Clarke is also the co-founder and Festival Director of the Leeds Digital Festival, an annual event started in 2016 celebrating all things digital in the region. In previous years, the festival has been fully in person, hosting events across the entire city over a two-week period.

Like all in-person events, last year Leeds Digital Festival was forced to adapt in the face of the coronavirus outbreak, becoming a virtual affair for the first time in its history. In 2021, in order for the festival to go ahead, the organisers decided to take a hybrid approach. The result was attendees from over 60 countries, including Khazakstan and the Philippines.

Since its inception six years ago, the festival has grown from 50 events in its first year to more than 300 in 2021, with a total of more than 140,000 attendees across its entire six-year run. The festival is an “open platform,” meaning Clarke and his team don’t put on any events themselves. Instead, they just extend an invite to organizations in the area that they think might be interested, offering a platform to everybody from the newest startups to international tech giants. In addition, only two of the 300 events the festival hosted this year charged an attendance fee, making it financially accessible for anyone who wanted to attend.

Sarah Pawson from Fruition Consulting and Fruition IT places candidates in roles in both London and the Yorkshire area. She said that one of the things events like the Leeds Digital Festival highlight is the collaborative nature of the city.

“What you see in Leeds is, whether or not you work for the same organisation, it’s irrelevant. There’s a real openness to collaborate, even after the pandemic, and support each other across different businesses,” she said. “I think we’re punchy for our size, in terms of the companies that are here and the people that we’re able to attract to the market. Whereas the key difference in London is it’s a much faster market, and while there might still be a much broader range of opportunities there, I don’t think you see that closeness and collaboration across companies.”

Impact of Covid

Pawson says that in recent years, Leeds and the surrounding areas have managed to attract some “really brilliant” tech organisations to the region, and as a result the area has developed a reputation for being a hotbed of talent.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit the UK in early 2020, there were widespread reports of individuals and families leaving major cities like London once they realised they would be working remotely for the foreseeable future.

She acknowledges that for people who don’t have ties to the area, Yorkshire might not be the obvious place to move to. However, those who have been stuck in London during lockdown with limited access to the countryside or green space are starting to reconsider their options.

“I think we’re starting to see more and more people moving to the area, particularly people who have roots up here — either they’ve got family in the area or maybe went to university here or just grew up here,” she said. “We’re starting to see a lot of people return to the area. Remote working has completely changed how people think and feel about where they live and work.”

The idea that you don’t need to live in a certain area in order to be eligible for a job has allowed people to be a lot more open-minded about where they decide to live, Pawson says. However, she warns prospective employers that although all the candidates she’s placed recently have inquired about flexible work policies, salary is still the key driver for organisations wanting to stay competitive.

Pawson says that her company is already seeing a lot of London-based companies targeting Leeds and Yorkshire as a hub for talent because the region has done such a good job of promoting its digital industries. While this clearly demonstrates the strength of the digital sector in Leeds, the demand for talent means that organisations from the region that might previously have been able to offer lower salaries due to the region’s comparatively low cost of living are now competing with companies on a global scale.

“It’s a really simple concept: if you don’t pay above market rate, then you will not be able to attract quality talent. It doesn’t matter what your offering is, how interesting your project is, or how new your technology is,” Pawson said. “All of these things factor into somebody’s decision, but ultimately, there’s so many opportunities out there with great tech, with great culture, with great flexible working, organisations have got to rise to the challenge.”

The future of the region

The so-called North/South divide has long spawned conversations and political pledges — with varying degrees of success, depending on who you ask.

Under former Prime Minister David Cameron, the Northern Powerhouse initiative promised to improve transport links, invest in science and innovation, and devolve power from central to local goverment in City Deals. The proposals were eventually downgraded under Theresa May’s premiership.

Current Prime Minister Boris Johnson has introduced a “levelling up” agenda, although the reality of what it will mean for areas of the country like Yorkshire and Leeds remains to be seen.

For Clarke, it’s less about the region receiving a direct cash injection from the government and more about strengthening infrastructure and transport routes throughout the area.

“Leeds and Manchester [are] the same distance apart as the length of the Central Line, but it can take over an hour to get between them. If it was 25 minutes, as it should be, then both cities could be one big collaboration hub,” Clarke said. “The economic and collaboration benefits you’d get out of that really would transform things. But that’s not going to happen for a long, long time.”

He’d also like to see organisations and networks set up to monitor and support the UK’s tech industry take less of a London-centric approach to their work and events. Clarke and his team at Leeds Digital Festival have helped around five other digital festivals, including Manchester, Bristol, Oxford, and the Northeast Digital Festival in Halifax, to get off the ground in the last few years, simply by sharing their knowledge and experience.

“Many of them are like ours, grassroots with a bunch of people putting on five events one year, but maybe aiming for 50 the next,” he said.

Pawson says a lot of the organisations she works with have already benefited from government funding. Earlier this year it was announced that between now and 2026, around 465,000 homes and businesses across Yorkshire and the Humber are set to benefit from a broadband boost in the region, costing around £186 million.

This year, the government launched its Lifetime Skills Guarantee programme to meet the effects the pandemic has had on careers, including redundancies and business closures. The financial backing of this initiative means more than 400 courses are now available to study for free at Leeds City College for those aged over 19 years.

“As a city and a region, we have some incredible talent and amazing organisations that are creating world-class innovations,” Pawson said.

Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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