New threads for wool city

New investment into Bradford city centre has been welcomed but can shiny new buildings alone help it revive its fortunes?

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Dark and satanic Bradford’s woollen mills may have been – and a century ago there were around 300 of them – but with the noise, toil and pollution came employment, investment and wealth. Today things are different.

“City Park helped reassure investors that the local authority was willing to stick its neck out.”

The nationwide collapse of manufacturing during the 1980s hit Bradford hard, a blow it’s yet to recover from. The city currently has an unemployment rate 50 per cent above the national average and almost half Bradford’s wards are within Britain’s poorest fifth. Over the last three decades this once prosperous Yorkshire city has become a byword for urban decline. Myriad schemes and plans for regeneration have been conceived, put to consultation and publicly announced before promptly vanishing.

But at last signs are pointing toward a change in Bradford’s fortunes. Many in the city – one larger than Bristol or Newcastle – appear convinced that the place once dubbed Wool City is ready to free itself from the “Britain’s most struggling” label and begin to punch
its weight once again.

Since 2016 Alex Ross-Shaw has been Bradford Council’s portfolio holder for regeneration, planning and transport. Born in neighbouring Leeds, he’s lived in the Bradford area for 15 years and views the regeneration of the city centre as key to unlocking the area’s potential.

The award-winning City Park, centred around the incredible, Grade I-listed City Hall, was completed a decade ago.

“It really is a world-class civic space right in the centre of the city and it helped reassure investors that the local authority was willing to stick its neck out and do the right thing,” says Ross-Shaw. “Now we have a key development planned for that area, called One City Park, which will provide quality, modern commercial space and will attract investment and give opportunity for businesses native to Bradford to grow. And, throughout the city, we need to start moving away from what you could call traditional retail. We know from statistics that city centres currently doing well don’t have an over-reliance on retail.”

To this end, the council plans to demolish a number of mainly empty 20th century commercial properties – “which haven’t aged too well” – and open the Darley Street area into a new public space, while exposing some incredible Victorian merchant’s houses on Piccadilly that have been hidden away for the best part of 100 years. Plans to convert the nearby, long-derelict Odeon building into a live music complex – a project that has been rumbling along for over a decade – also appear to be coming to fruition with planning permission now secured by the NEC Group and licensing applications lodged.

However, to some all this is little more than window dressing. Mohammed Ali OBE is head of the QED Foundation, a Bradford-based charity he founded 30 years ago to improve the social and economic position of those from disadvantaged communities. Although Ali is positive for the city’s future he speaks with the air of a man who’s seen many regeneration schemes come and, sadly, go.

“I believe employment is the key to an integrated, successful, cohesive, harmonious society so our organisation focuses on getting people working and overcoming any potential barriers preventing them getting a job. Infrastructure schemes are fantastic, but we need the people here ready and equipped to take full advantage of them.”

Ali cites Bradford’s Broadway shopping centre (a project that suffered a protracted birth, planned for 2004, and opened on a much reduced scale in 2015) as a missed opportunity.

“It is a good thing for the city – anything is good for the city – but you have to consider things like the quality of jobs it’s created and the fact that much of the profits are subsequently taken from the area by corporations. We have such a young, diverse workforce here and we need to unlock their potential. The image of the city is a big factor – it seems so fashionable to knock Bradford – but there is already everything in place to encourage businesses requiring a skilled workforce to come. Maybe we have this perception that the standard of education isn’t high here but that’s something that can be addressed.”

The overall standard of education in the city is problematic. Anne-Marie Canning, is chair of the government’s Opportunity Area programme, which focuses on the 12 areas of England with the lowest levels of social mobility, of which Bradford is the largest. It is also the UK’s youngest city, with almost a quarter of the 528,000 population under 16.

“Twenty thousand pupils in the Bradford area are in schools regarded as inadequate or requiring improvement,” she says.

The Department for Education’s programme aims to unlock the potential of these children, equipping them with skills that will subsequently attract employers to the city.

Canning says: “We look at things like school to school support for those that are struggling, improving literacy by working with parents inside communities and, importantly, we ensure every child has real life encounters with employers through things like talks in school, insight days and mentoring from people in business. Plus there are extra-curricular activities that give kids the confidence and networking skills to get on in life. It’s all about joined-up thinking for future careers.”

Canning is impressed by Bradfordians’ can-do attitude. Historically there’s been a feeling the city was constantly on the back foot but that appears to be changing. “People told me ‘nobody will criticise Bradford more than people who live in Bradford’, but what’s striking is how genuinely inspiring people seem to be,” she says. “The generosity and honesty is amazing. We have funding until 2020 and social mobility is not going to be solved when the Opportunity Area ends, but I firmly believe Bradford has everything it needs to be a social mobility success story with so much to play for.”

Although Bradford continues to suffer very real blows – HMRC offices in the city centre and nearby Shipley will soon relocate to Leeds, taking almost 2,000 jobs with them – there does appear to be genuine confidence for the first time in decades. “I am a realist and I’ve lived here long enough to witness real decline and numerous schemes falter,” Ali says. “But I am currently optimistic that those making decisions for big business will start to realise how much Bradford has to offer and that will combine with the positive action people like ourselves are taking.”

Alongside the plans for Darley Street, One City Park and the Odeon, Ross-Shaw speaks enthusiastically of redevelopment at both Bradford’s mainline stations, a projected 1,000 home “city village” scheme, a new city centre sixth-form college and the flourishing, independent nightlife provided by the North Parade area and recently opened Sunbridge Wells complex. “We’re looking at more
to do, more to see, a stronger cultural scene, more jobs and better places to live,” he says.

Time will tell whether this optimism and investment will finally translate into a better, stronger Bradford. Statistics predict the city’s population will grow by 2,000 per year for at least the next decade, so a serious upturn in prospects is vitally important. Concrete jobs are needed to match concrete infrastructure. But, perhaps for the first time in over three decades, all the factors appear to be in place to help Bradford achieve a sustainable, prosperous future.

“I think Bradford is ready for a wide-reaching, inclusive and successful future,” says Canning. “The city needs confidence, sustainability and economic growth, and, in the time I’ve been working with those involved I’ve realised all these factors are coming together. Bradford has so much to play for.”

The only way is up

Marko Husak co-owned and ran Bradford’s independent Sparrow Bier Café on North Parade from 2011 to 2018

“I think things are really starting to happen again in Bradford. When me and Les [Hall, business partner] opened the Sparrow, there very few good pubs and bars in the city. We were both big beer fans but always had to go to Leeds or Manchester to find anywhere decent and we wanted to open somewhere that had the real focus on good beer but had a community mind set where likeminded people could come and meet up. 

In the early days we had support from Bradford Art School, people involved with the peace studies course at the university, Bradford Real Ale Society and Bradford City fans on match day.

There was negativity towards us at first: ‘It won’t last two months!’ ‘Why would anyone open in Bradford?’ ‘They must be drug dealers.’

On the flipside a lot of people came to support us because they knew Bradford was a tough place, they knew it was often challenging and they basically wanted a nice place to drink. Then the general attitude towards us, and towards Bradford in general, did start to change. A bit of a buzz began in the city. 

Other bars started opening on North Parade and it felt like an exciting time, like a smaller version of Brooklyn or Berlin developing into an area with a lot of interesting stuff happening. It really would be amazing if the city began to attract artists and people in creative industries, began to become a cool destination.

What Bradford really needs is more footfall, especially from people like office workers who will be around spending money during lunchtime and maybe having a couple of drinks after work. More office space will help everyone and when the Odeon eventually opens that should bring people to the city too.

We sold the Sparrow last year when we’d taken it as far as we could. There were so many more quality bars around than when we started plus I’d opened an Indian food and craft beer restaurant called Bundobust in Leeds, which was taking up all my time. Les felt like he needed a new challenge.

The leisure side of things is always a good indicator of what’s happening and that showing so much improvement can only be a good sign. The city has had a lot of pie in the sky ideas over the years, of course, and we really need to see all the things currently planned actually happening but there’s only one way I see Bradford going and that is up.” 

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