Leeds weathers storm as cuts fail to impress

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The Independent Online

Almost at the exact moment that Alistair Darling sat down in the overheated chamber of the House of Commons, shoppers in Briggate in Leeds were hurriedly putting up their umbrellas to shelter against another freezing shower of sleet sweeping in off the Pennines. Of all the cities that reinvented themselves in the 1990s, few could claim to have been quite as successful as here. Under New Labour, the skyline has transformed itself with glass and steel apartment blocks for the legions of young professionals enticed to work in the thriving financial sector. The city centre is now able to boast some of the most famous names in retail.

Of course, everybody knows what has happened to the buy-to-let market and plans for skyscrapers in Leeds appear firmly on hold. Yorkshire's financiers – HBOS workers among them – are also wondering what has gone wrong. Somehow keeping people shopping will be critical to the future wellbeing of the regional economy.

And some people were helping to contribute to that regional economy yesterday by stoically carrying on spending.

One of those, Gurdeep Bharth, 21, said: "I'll never give it up. The credit crunch is only a problem if you cannot control your money and I am quite good at that. How much I spend depends on what brands I'm buying. I've spent £150 on this coat but I've got two jobs so I can afford it," she said. But not everyone will find themselves in as secure a financial position – and able to splash out – as Ms Bharth.

Yesterday, retailers on Briggate were wondering whether a small cut in VAT will really be enough to persuade people to keep dipping into their pockets.

A student, Joel Marris, 22, was making his way up the hill clutching an Argos bag with a new £13 Scrabble set inside. "I'm trying to put it out of my mind to be honest, though I will spend a bit less this year," said the final-year English and French undergraduate, one of 124,000 students in Leeds. "But I am worried about the employment market, which is really competitive at the moment."

A human resources manager, Paul Ferrie, 42, who is married with two young children, said: "The reduction in VAT will help a little bit but it is not going to persuade me to come out and make me shop any more."

And his wife, Vicky, 36, an accountant currently on maternity leave, agreed. "I would like to see the interest rates coming down and see our monthly mortgage rates reduced. Gas and electricity are going sky high. It is not like you have any spare money at the moment to go shopping with," she said.

A housewife, Jean Dawkins, 60, was less equivocal: "Cutting VAT is ridiculous – what difference will it make? If the Chancellor wants to do something to help the economy he should resign. What he is doing is simply holding the country to ransom and we will have to repay all this money later."

But there were some glimmers of optimism. A businessman, Francesco Mazzella, was announcing the opening of his latest venture yesterday – a new Champagne bar. "People want quality, not quantity," he said. That, no doubt, is a sentiment the Chancellor may also want to drink to.