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The UK’s youngest city is trying to build itself a better future

Author: Apolitical
Published Date: 21 March 2018

In 10 years, Bradford could stand as a shining example - or as a dire warning.

On the fringes of the City of Bradford in Northern England, at the feet of the old Salts Mill textile factory, stands the golden sandstone village of Saltaire. One of 19th century Britain’s boldest experiments in paternalistic capitalism, the settlement was created in 1853 by the impressively bearded industrialist Sir Titus Salt. Salt built fine, modest homes to shelter his workers’ bodies, with churches and an alcohol-free social club to save their souls. “I hope to draw around me a population that will enjoy the beauties of this neighbourhood,” he once said, “a population of well paid, contented, happy operatives.”

More than 150 years later, Salts Mill’s looms are long gone and Saltaire is a UNESCO world heritage site. The village draws in gaggles of tourists, some of them stopping off at the cheekily named “Don’t Tell Titus” bar, where the stony old moralist would quake at the “Sloegasm,” “Sin Sour” and “Rude Cosmo” cocktails on offer. Meanwhile, across the rest of Bradford and its metropolitan district, the retreat of Salt and his fellow captains of industry has left too little behind in terms of opportunities for good pay and contentment. Many of the districts in and around the city centre rank among Britain’s 10% most deprived. The thundering wool mills that once brought prosperity are now mostly still. So what kind of new vision is needed to improve the lot of its citizens?

Those responsible for the city’s future hope they have the answer. The council has launched a wide-ranging plan for inclusive growth, to make Bradford “the UK’s fastest growing economy over the coming decade,” increasing its size by £4 billion ($5.5 billion) and moving 20,000 residents into work. Further on the horizon, a potentially transformative high-speed rail link built between Bradford and wealthier nearby cities has been mooted. With the highest proportion of people under 18 of any city in the UK, there’s pressure to deliver better fortunes in future. “I feel a real drive to try and make sure that the city is good for them,” said council leader Susan Hinchcliffe in her office in the cavernous Victorian City Hall, and to “leave it in a great state for them to take it over.”

Bradford has a lot to commend it – youth, successful neighbours, some very productive industry, and a robust beauty in its built environment are among its assets. A reversal of its fortunes would be an inspiration for urban leaders across the West. But failure would stand as a warning to any government tempted to let its more neglected cities slide. “This is an absolutely key moment for Bradford, its economic strategy has really got to work,” said Charlotte Alldritt, Director of the Centre for Progressive Policy think tank. If a place with Bradford’s assets can’t be turned around then, Alldritt thinks, “we’re in real trouble.”

The next generation

The prevalence of youth in Bradford is evident from any walk around the city centre – by the standards of an increasingly elderly Britain, the number of fresh faces on the streets is striking. But while the backdrop of grand warehouses, mills and civic buildings still looks impressive, many stand empty or under-occupied in near-silent streets. Maybe it’s unsurprising, then, that younger citizens aren’t feeling the buzz. “It always feels to me like a bit of a ghost town,” said Lucy Bairstow, 26, an actor. “It’s alright,” said 19-year-old student Celine Buttrey of the town, before concluding without enthusiasm: “I’m sure there’s better places out there.”

More serious than a lack of activity is the town’s youth unemployment rate, which stood at 26% in 2015 when the UK-wide figure was just 15%. That may help explain why, despite the city’s strong university – ranked 58th of the UK’s 129 schools – significantly more young people leave Bradford than move to it each year from within Britain. Of those who stay in the city, many 25- to 34-year-olds must brave a poorly connected commute to nearby Leeds for work.

The council names “our young and enterprising population” as the first of four “key opportunities” at the heart of its economic strategy. The “incredible energy and raw talent” of its junior citizens – provided the city can equip them with the right skills – can be a mark in favour of Bradford for businesses looking for a new place to set up shop. Meanwhile, research by Metro Dynamics commissioned by the council last year identifies promising clusters of “young urban residents”: “highly mobile, qualified, 25- to 34-year-olds” of an entrepreneurial bent, the sort of go-getters that all 21st-century city halls are keen to attract to their towns.

For Hinchcliffe, who represents the left-wing Labour Party, it’s the civic duty of the city’s businesses to play a part in growing its skills base.

“It’s no longer good enough for businesses to say ‘You know what, schools aren’t providing me with the skilled workforce that I need’,” she said, “Well, what are you doing about it then? Because actually, if you’re a business, you’ll be always investing in new machinery, you’ll always be investing in researching raw materials for your businesses, and therefore you probably do need to do the same when it comes to your skills, as well.” Paul Swinney, head of research and policy at the Centre for Cities think tank, said the focus on skills is the right one: “Bradford has the fourth highest share of residents with no formal qualifications of any UK city, and the third lowest level of GCSE attainment,” he pointed out.

The council’s “Industrial Centres of Excellence” scheme, which links businesses with educational institutions to develop vocational curriculums, already involves 300 businesses and helps 3,000 students to gain skills in areas like construction and engineering. As part of its economic strategy, the council wants to expand the program, including the development of new opportunities in the health and social care sector. Its “SkillsHouse” program, which has helped 2,500 people into work, was established ahead of the opening of the town’s new Broadway Shopping Centre as an employment “finishing school,” getting long-term unemployed residents ready to apply for jobs in the new retail space.

“It’s about us intervening to make sure that those opportunities are available to the many,” Hinchliffe said. The council is also reworking its procurement strategy so that companies it buys from are required to deliver social value in the city, and so that it works mostly with local businesses.

Bradford is getting some help on skills from central government – a £11 million ($15.2 million) “Opportunity Area” investment announced in January will use government money for school leaders’ training, new literacy programs and other improvements. But Hinchcliffe says the city needs more. She is campaigning, alongside other leaders, for new powers to be devolved from central government to the Yorkshire region, within which Bradford sits. Hinchcliffe said that with more local clout the council could provide more incentives for people to study engineering courses, for example.

Getting on the map

Kamran Rashid, a 34-year-old social entrepreneur, has returned to his home city after a career in London and overseas. “I do feel like it’s a time when things could happen in Bradford,” he said over espresso in his airy office.

Rashid has a vision for the town’s “Little Germany” district, near the city centre. This knot of narrow streets, lined with handsome neoclassical buildings, was once the thronging Bradford base of continental European merchants, who hawked goods across the globe from a city that was then the wool capital of the world. Nowadays, though it’s still home to a gaggle of businesses, it is far more serene.

But Rashid and others see potential in the combination of urban location and distinctive architecture that has seen similar districts boom in other cities. “If I was to draw parallels I would love it to look like Shoreditch or Old Street,” said Rashid, referring to East London’s hipster heartlands.

Rashid’s current labour of love is 30 Chapel Street, an 11,000 square foot listed heritage building he wants to convert into a co-working space for startups, social enterprises and other creative businesses. Like all of the “many significant vacant spaces and buildings” identified by council-commissioned research last year, Chapel Street has potential to attract businesses and wealthy residents to the city centre. Bringing such places back to life is one pillar of the council’s economic strategy.

But there’s a problem. Bradford is a fairly big city by UK standards – the metropolitan district has around half a million residents and is growing – yet it has no major rail connection. Without one, whatever the other advantages, it can be a struggle to draw investment into the city centre.

A plan published earlier this year by the Transport for the Northregional body and currently out for consultation would see an intercity rail link slash journey times from Bradford to Leeds and to Manchester, another Northern metropolis. This could have a transformative effect on the city centre, either by helping to draw more businesses, or by making it easier for people to live in the centre of Bradford and commute elsewhere. Amir Hussain, who runs Bradford-based architecture firm YEME, said that delivering the rail link is “critical.” “For me, one of the biggest things that would really have a seismic change on circumstances is if we can attract more people to live in the city centre and commute out,” he said.

Links to the world

In a quiet residential street, South of Bradford city centre, hides Karachi, which claims to be the oldest curry restaurant in a town which has become famous for Pakistani and Indian cuisine.

Karachi opened in 1962 as a small canteen for the droves of young Pakistani men who came in the thousands to keep the city’s mills roaring during the mid-20th century, dishing up the food of home at the end of a punishing day. Now double the size, staff say today it caters much more often to white Britons, whose insatiable appetite for curry is long-established. Khan was born near Islamabad but moved to Bradford in 1997. He said approvingly of the city that it is “like [a] small Pakistan.”

That’s something of an exaggeration – while the Pakistani community has long since expanded beyond single men, it makes up more like 20% of Bradford’s population. Still, the city has long been a byword for diversity in the UK. The council thinks that this history can be an economic as well as a cultural asset, providing trade links beyond the European Union in growing sectors like halal products. Their strategy commits to growing a network of “Export Exchange patrons” to help businesses into new markets.

But in a country where the debate around immigration, integration, and radicalisation among Muslims (a religion making up about 24% of Bradford’s population) has become increasingly febrile, this diversity has sometimes negatively influenced the way Bradford is discussed in other parts of the country.

“We have frequently been mentioned for, whether it’s radicalisation, or people talking negatively about the diversity of the population,” said Syima Aslam, director of the Bradford Literature festival, which launched in 2014, “I feel it’s far better for us to actually take hold of that debate and shape it ourselves.” Aslam wants her festival to be a vehicle for cultural regeneration. Part of that, she said, is creating a diverse program that includes unflinching discussions on thorny issues like race or extremism – positioning Bradford as at the forefront of thinking on those topics.

Meanwhile, much closer to home, Bradford also wants to strengthen its links with nearby Leeds. The two are so close together that they are often talked about as a single metropolitan area. But according to the council-commissioned analysis, Bradford’s surprisingly separate labour market “runs counter to the theory of urban agglomeration,” which states that the two economies should be working together to mutual benefit. Beyond the major high-speed rail link, the council wants to improve connections to Leeds-Bradford airport to the northeast, and emphasises the role of a new rail station opened last year in linking the two urban areas.

Averting catastrophe

Success is far from assured in Bradford. Apart from anything else, the potential impact of Brexit looms over the city as it does the rest of Britain – according to a UK government analysis Yorkshire could miss out on between 1.5% and 7% of GDP growth following EU exit. Meanwhile, fierce cuts to British local government in the past decade have restricted the ability of councils across the nation to shape the fortunes of the places in their charge.

“One of my greatest fears with the post-industrial towns and cities,” said Alldritt, “is that as we see the next revolution of technology, it’ll be those same communities that were let down in the 1980s that find themselves let down yet again.” In 10 years, Bradford could stand as a shining example of inclusive growth – or as a dire warning of what happens when inclusive growth is not pursued.

This article was first featured on Apolitical. To see the original version, click here.