On a map, Bradford looks like it’s slap bang in the middle of the country. On the ground, it doesn’t feel that way.
Quite the opposite, in fact. The city centre is bypassed by the trans-Pennine M62 and relies on the tiny, sluggish Bradford Spur, the M606, to connect it to the national motorway network. Its two stations each lie at the end of the line, too: trains from Manchester to Leeds literally have to reverse out of Bradford Interchange to serve the city. “It’s like we’re in a cul-de-sac,” the council leader, Labour’s Susan Hinchcliffe says. As a result, “we’ve not made the best of our central position.”
The difficulty of getting to Bradford is perhaps one reason why such a big city would remain quite so unknown. It’s under 10 miles from Leeds and not much smaller, but it’s been consistently over-shadowed by its larger, richer neighbour: the fact Bradford has been barred from the Core Cities group of major regional centres is a source of some bitterness among local politicos. Wages and productivity remain low, even compared to nearby cities. And while it retains a relatively big local manufacturing sector, the sort of high-value business services that generally make for prosperity are conspicuous by their absence.
Bradford’s economy, compared to selected nearby cities. Image: Centre for Cities.
There are a few things the city is famous for: it’s home to the National Science & Media Museum, and its large Asian population means it’s also meant to be one of the best places in Britain to get a decent curry. (A local conservative councillor, Simon Cooke, has argued it should re-position itself as the capital of Asian Britain.) But generally speaking, if outsiders think of Bradford at all, they picture somewhere shabby, crumbling and poor.
This is, in all honesty, a bit of a shame – because for all the city’s problems, its centre is quite stunningly beautiful. The rapid rise of the textile industry in the 19th century packed the place with gorgeous gothic revival architecture; its equally rapid decline in the 20th meant that the local council lacked the money for the sort of utopian redevelopment schemes that might have destroyed it.
And so, by and large, it remains: Bradford is one of the best preserved Victorian cities in Britain, and I defy you to find a better looking book shop than the Waterstones in the Wool Exchange anywhere in the world.
Inside the Wool Exchange. Image: Casliber/Wikimedia Commons.
It’s getting better looking, too. For more than a decade, the city centre was dominated by a large and unsightly hole, where lack of funding and the financial crash meant development had stalled. A few years ago, though, this was finally filled in, and re-opened in 2015 as The Broadway shopping centre.
The same development saw large chunks of the surrounding streetscape pedestrianised, and a stretch of road outside the Victorian City Hall replaced by the City Park, complete with mirror pool, fountains and cafes. The park, Hinchcliffe says, has given the city a focal point and event space. “It means our diverse population can come together and feel ownership of the city.”
Centenary Square, City Park, with the City Hall on the right. Image: Bradford Buzz/Wikimedia Commons.
More changes are on the way. The council is helping fund the redevelopment of the grand 1930s Odeon building as a 4,000 seater music and events venue, to be operated by the same group as Birmingham’s National Exhibition Centre. And the opening of the Broadway has pulled the city’s shopping district down the hill, towards the Little Germany conservation area. The old indoor market is following it, moving halfway down to a building that once housed a Marks & Spencer. Its current site will be redeveloped as homes.
The hope is that, as the population of the city centre increases, nightlife and other signs of vibrant city life will follow. All of this, Hinchcliffe says, is about bringing a measure of pride back to the city – as well as the affluent nearby towns covered by the council, but which currently prefer not to associate with it. “We want people to say they live in Ilkley in Bradford,” she adds, “not Ilkley near Leeds.”
But a shiny new city centre will only get you so far – and the city still faces two big problems.
One is the one we came in on: transport. There are fairly regular train services to both Leeds and Manchester, but the trains are too old, too slow and frequently, thanks to Northern, too late. Direct services to London are operated by Grand Central – but they wind their way around the West Riding before joining the East Coast Main Line, meaning it’s generally quicker to go via Leeds.
The roads aren’t much better, notes Ian Williams, a director of the West & North Yorkshire Chamber of Commerce. Keighley, a town to the north west of the borough, “has a very strong manufacturing sector. But the issue it faces is getting to the motorway network.”
The Northern Powerhouse Rail plan. Click to expand. Image: TfGM.
On the former problem at least, hope is on the horizon: Bradford recently won its battle to get a stop on the proposed Northern Powerhouse Rail, a partially new route connecting Liverpool to Hull. That won’t happen for decades, if at all; but if it does it will boost the city’s prospects, as both a commuter town for Leeds and Manchester and as a centre in its own right.
The other problem, argues the Centre for Cities’ head of policy Paul Swinney, is skills. Bradford has one of the least qualified populations in the country: the Centre ranks it as 57th out of 59 on GCSE results, and 60th out of 63 on share of population with higher education. Without addressing that, Swinney says, the city won’t be able to attract the jobs and businesses it needs to boom.
“You go to the centre of Bradford and it’s beautiful,” he adds. “You can tell it was once thriving as it had the money to spend on those great buildings. But the challenge has been that, once the generators of that wealth disappeared, it struggled to attract new ones.”
Better connections to the national transport network will only get you so far. After all: “Doncaster and Stoke have good transport links – and they’re not doing so well, either.”