In the industrial regions of Britain it is often the second and third cities of the region that have stagnated whilst the hub city thrives. Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds are hubs that zing with economic and cultural affluence. For Bolton, Bradford and Wolverhampton it is a different story. The question is why?
Profiling West Yorkshire, Bradford is good example of a second city with a centre or core that has been crying out for regeneration for some time.
Bradford has more listed buildings than any other city outside London apart from Liverpool, though that is debatable. The problem is that too many of them are underused and undervalued as commercial propositions at the moment.
The city was redeveloped in the 1960's losing much of its Victorian heritage; it then had a modern city centre, but the buildings of the 60's were not built to last like the Victorian ones. Further redevelopment started again in 2004 to clear away much of the 'new' development. The site was cleared and a large hole of several acres appeared for the foundations of the new build.
It remained so for seven years. The economic downturn put a halt to the development in 2008. Foot fall in what was left of the city centre decreased alarmingly and parts of it became a ghost town with an abundance of closed office, service and retail establishments. The same closures happened in other cities such as Rotherham, but they did not have a large hole in the centre of the city.
‘I will not shop in Bradford any more', became a familiar cry - and still is - there being very few top end retail establishments. Understandable when Leeds, Harrogate, Skipton, Huddersfield and Halifax are all within easy reach and a motorway network takes you to a variety of out of town retail parks within an hour.
However, this year on November 5th the new Broadway retail centre will open in Bradford, one of only five that the international developers Westfield are launching across the world.
The multi-story development has again transformed the vista of Bradford, as a new steel and glass palace rises. As it replaces the former 1960's development some may ask if the city is making the same mistake again. Is it in the right place? Just where is the right place and what are city centres now for?
Time will tell. It may be part of the answer to regeneration, but it is not the whole. City centres are not just for retail outlets. People will not come to the city centre if they do not feel safe; the city should have grace, be attractive and tidy, litter free and clean, with breathing spaces such as parks and gardens.
It should be a centre of culture with galleries, museums and concert halls. It has to be a place of entertainment with cinemas, arenas and quality cafes and restaurants. Plus it has to have easy access by train and parking, the nearer the parking the better, even better if it is above, below or by the side of their destination. Covered streets and pedestrianisation are part of the answer too. At the moment some city centres are struggling to be both attractive and have a variety of establishments to attract enough people to make them an economic success.
Like many cities the fringe areas of Bradford thrive and are attractive places to live, Ilkley for example. As urbanisation creeps outwards so the city centre becomes more remote, to be visited on rare occasions, especially as more people now work from home, shop from home and have home entertainment. There has to be a good reason for these people to visit the centre of the city: the more attractive it is, the more likely they will.
The development of the Mirror Pool and the City Park in Bradford have done much to enhance this and with a leading theatre, concert hall and cinema complex, plus a major national museum and renowned restaurants, there is a lot to offer for entertainment. Yet it needs more commercial variety.
Bradford is a big place with a population of 515,000, bigger than many cities in the country.
- 27% of that population derives from South Asia and the percentage is growing.
- 24% of the population is under 18, so the city will grow and expand.
- It remains a manufacturing city with 26% of its gross product derived from that source.
The purchasing power of the population is there, it's just that a great amount of that money is spent elsewhere at the moment.
The question arises as to whether one large retail development can kick start the city back to its former glory?
In the fast-paced game of city-devolution, one-upmanship drives many of the players: can this government fulfill the promises of its predecessors by delivering localism and rebalancing the economy? Can this city-region secure the most ambitious deal? Can those local authorities put aside entrenched politics to show central government it means business? It seems that competition can, after all, be a powerful lever of local dynamism; Lord Heseltine’s City Challenge Fund and the ethos of bidding for funds has perhaps been based on the right idea, but only once the stakes seem high enough to generate real results.
The RSA City Growth Commission’s final recommendations, published one year ago, represented a critical step in a longer journey towards devolution in England. As with many Commissions, the process of enquiry is as important as the final report. The visit the Commission took to Newcastle, to listen and learn about the challenges we face, and to contribute to the local debate, was an important staging post in our own drive to devolution.