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Government / Local politics

Leeds vs Bradford: How a tale of two cities shows the need for place-based growth strategies

“You can smell the money there as soon as you get off the train.” That was how one Bradford resident described nearby Leeds, in Demos’ latest research on cities and inclusive growth.

Alas, it reflected a widespread sentiment. The Bradford citizens we interviewed were not resentful of Leeds – nor were they relentlessly negative about their own city’s relative prospects. Nevertheless, it was hard not to observe the quiet, phlegmatic acceptance of a pecking order. As one citizen put it, “Bradford is totally different [to Leeds]. It’s a poorer city with less opportunity because it has not modernised as much.”

To be clear: both of West Yorkshire’s principal cities have improved significantly in this year’s Demos and PwC Good Growth for Cities 2017In fact, all UK cities improved on last year’s results with Leeds ranking as Britain’s second most improved city, after Birmingham. But when it comes to their overall fortunes, Leeds and Bradford are, once again, contrasting. 

One big reason for this is social mobility. Whilst Bradford trails Leeds across most metrics, it exhibits a particular weakness on skills and new business starts (our two proxies for social mobility). In terms of the latter, citizens regularly complained about the “decline” or “deterioration” of the city centre. As one citizen put it, “Bradford has a dying city centre. It’s a shame but it is definitely deteriorating – it does not compare to Leeds. 


Contrastingly, Leeds’ citizens saw the city centre’s commercial cloud as something which made the city an “amazing place to live in”, driving a strongly optimistic outlook regarding the city’s economic prospects. 

Yet it is the educational outlook that should most concern West Yorkshire’s city leaders. When asked about its education system, Bradford citizens often pointed to stark divisions in the cities schools: “There are the areas where the good schools are. But then we’ve got schools where there are empty spaces; we’ve got schools where English is not their first language for the vast majority.” 

More worrying still is the widespread concern about a local ‘brain-drain’ effect between Bradford and Leeds. Most young people we interviewed were happy with the range of opportunities on offer in Bradford – but this did not translate to optimism about their ability to get on in the city’s labour market.

Most citizens saw the magnetic pull of Leeds – particularly for higher skilled work – as almost inevitable: “The professional people from Bradford have all moved to Leeds. And the big firms. I don’t think we can compete any more. It is what it is, really. There are certainly more opportunities in Leeds.”

This is the challenge faced by city and combined authority leaders when it comes to raising social mobility and nurturing genuinely inclusive growth: that the local migration of skills and opportunity can, even at a micro-scale, accentuate social division and poor outcomes.

True, the contemporary move towards combined authorities and wider city regions can, in theory, mitigate this. Better for poorer areas like Bradford to have a formalised relationship with economically dynamic ones like Leeds. But without the right policy mix then economic dynamism has a tendency to cluster. 

One look at the rampant regional inequality afflicting the UK – the worst in the OECD group of developed economies, and getting worse – demonstrates the problem. The equitable sharing of success should be the founding principle of any successful place-based public policy approach; this should be the basis, at the risk of sounding overly grandiose, of the nation state itself. But what do we see when we look at the UK as a whole? Insufficiently challenged by countervailing policy, success is seeking out itself.

Make no mistake: there is no evidence this is happening in Leeds and Bradford at the moment – both cities have improved on our metric. Indeed, given those parlous OECD statistics, arguably British city leadership is doing a lot better at embedding inclusive growth than national policymakers, across the board.

But our research does underline the complex nature of trying to deliver effective, place-based strategies in a way that does not merely shift inclusive growth or social mobility opportunities between areas.

Of course, Bradford has just received one of the government’s new Opportunity Areas, precisely to help raise social mobility outcomes in the city. The lesson from Good Growth for Cities 2017 is that this must be aligned with a comprehensive, place-based approach to inclusive growth across the whole of the West Yorkshire region. 

Alan Lockey is head of modern economy at Demos.
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