Our new Notes from the City series brings together guest bloggers who’d like to share their thoughts about Bradford. This week, Councillor Simon Cooke, Leader of the Conservative Group on Bradford Council asks: “Do we need to think differently about our city centre?”
The best way to think about a place is almost always to walk round it, look about you and ask yourself questions – “why is that there?”, “how was that done?”, “what was that for?”. And we shouldn’t reserve this meandering form of enquiry for places we don’t know, we should use it in the places we know best. Walking round even the most familiar place will reveal things you didn’t know were there, call your attention to features of favourite buildings that you’d overlooked, and provide a chance to think about the place, its whys and wherefores.
I did this the other day in Bradford city centre walking along Market Street, round The Broadway to the edge of Little Germany and then back up into the main centre – Darley Street, Kirkgate, Ivegate. There’s a lot to tell about this place – what is it about the Shoulder of Mutton that makes it always busy, how come one coffee shop on Cheapside is always full while another seems to struggle, how many thousand yards of hair extensions are sold these days to justify several shops that seem to specialise in them (and this is in a city where a good proportion of women where one or other form of Islamic head covering)?
The big question on my mind then, as it is now, is what’s Bradford’s problem? We can look at old photographs from the 1960s and 1970s showing a bustling, busy town filled with shops and shoppers. Talk to people who remember those times and they’ll reel off the shops that once were and are no more – Busby’s, Carter’s, Brown & Muff – and explain how all this was destroyed by a rapacious, greedy council run by useless councillors. I’ve a feeling that all this is, at least in part, meant to exonerate us residents for giving up on the city centre – deserting those shops for other places out-of-town, on-line and even, horror of horrors, Leeds.
Some people will tell you that Stanley Wardley’s dastardly plans for the city are to blame. “All the good stuff was knocked down,” folk will exclaim, “the Swan Arcade, Mechanics Institute, Kirkgate Market Hall – and look at the Odeon.” But is this really so? Did Bad Stan really kill the city or is this just another way of dodging the truth about us, the City’s residents? Go back to those photographs from the 1970s – the busy Arndale centre filled with shops, the old Broadway likewise. Was is really bad architecture and half a ring road that did for Bradford city centre or was it something else?
Some, less ready to blame local worthies and perhaps more thoughtful, look to the decade from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s and point to the factories that closed, the mills that wound down and the works that shut their doors. These changes brought high unemployment, poverty and the start of a long period in which Bradford asked, from the pits of despair, whether it had much purpose any more. And we have to reckon these people have more of a point than those who point to Wardley and the councillors of the 1960s and 1970s. Again though, is it the whole point. Is this the only reason why Bradford’s city centre seemed set into a gradual decline and resistant to all efforts to turn it round? I’ve a feeling not all the city centre’s problems can be laid at the door of 1980s industrial decline. Other places suffered the same problems – Sheffield, Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle – but have city centres that have recovered.
The next culprit – if that’s what we’re looking for – is the modern Bradford council, the one that gave us ten years of ‘the hole’, that hasn’t sorted out the Odeon and that gapes helplessly at the escalation of departure from the city – Nat Prov, YBS, all the lawyers and accountants, Experian. All that remains today is the Council itself and Provident. Even the tax collectors are going. The Council has done nothing to stop all this, nothing to pull in new business, nothing to reboot shopping, nothing….nothing…nothing.
What came to me on my walk round the city was that this latest in a long line of reasons for failure is also wrong. The Council may not have fixed up the Odeon, might have stood peering into that hole, but it has done a lot in the past twenty years or so. Getting the Wool Exchange into use as a great bookshop. Renewing the stone paving (I remember insisting it all had to be stone) on Tyrrell Street and Hustlergate. Putting in the gate at the foot of Ivegate and relaying its sets. Renewing the public realm on Darley Street and Kirkgate. Rebuilding John Street market (albeit after the terrible decision to close Rawson Market and James Street Market).
Everywhere you look on the core of the city centre, you’ll see little efforts using public money to try and make the place better – a planter here, a bench there, pieces of public art and a constant effort to maintain the heritage of our town. Plus of course the big stuff – building Centenary Square and then the brilliant, award-winning City Park. A magnificent space framed by City Hall, the ‘banana building’, the magistrates court and, across Princes Way, the Alhambra and the Science and Media Museum. Plus, of course, the scaffolded, derelict problem that is the Odeon – get that done and you’ve probably the North of England’s finest public square (it’s pretty much already that).
And the Council can carry on doing this sort of work, large and small across the city centre. Each initiative lauded as important, change-making and part of a route to a better city centre. I’d go even further – the Council should carry on with these efforts. We should extend the walkable public space through more pedestrianisation – linking The Broadway to City Park, connecting the heritage core around Hustlergate and Bank Street to the bottom of town, perhaps even doing one of those daft things like an escalator up Darley Street to make for a fun trip up the hill where today it’s a slog few of us do. All this would be great, would make the centre cleaner, smarter and more of a place to dwell than it is now. Let’s do it.
But let’s then remember that the Council isn’t the answer to the problem of the City’s decline. If desire and enthusiasm plus a little cash was all we needed for a great city centre then, trust me, we’d have one of the world’s best. I’ve seen that passion and enthusiasm from councillors, from council officers and from assorted hired guns brought in over the years to help us deliver our vision of a brilliant centre. Yet what have we got?
Bradford city centre is, for all the many good things about it, a poor show. We’ve too many empty places, too much low value activity and an image problem worse than nearly anywhere (bar perhaps Oldham) in the North. It can be summed up by the common place remark along the lines of “there’s only pound shops and the council knocked down all the good buildings”. We know this isn’t true but we also hear it all the time and struggle to make the pitch for why the centre is great. We rattle off the list – The Broadway, City Park, Waterstones, Sunbridge Wells, North Parade – and maybe add a couple of our own, maybe Roswitha’s deli in the market or the new bakery. Great. It’s all great. But is it really? Consider for a second what we’re saying here – some great public space, a mid-sized shopping centre, some brilliant bars and a couple of shops. Is that enough? Is that what’s needed to get the folk from up the valley into town with their pockets loaded with brass? Or are those folk going smile, say “maybe another day” and then get the train to Leeds or drive the car to Skipton, perhaps Harrogate?
So, for all its mistakes, the Council has and continues to invest in the city centre. As it should. But the answer, at least judging by what has happened on the back of many millions of council spending, plainly doesn’t lie with the Council. Shops, bars, restaurants and a host of other things that might happen in a city centre – these aren’t things that Councils run. The unused space above all those pound shops and people selling hair extensions of vaping products – are we going to use that? Will it be cheap housing for poor people (so we don’t have to build better homes for those people on green fields adjoining our suburbs)? Or will we think a bit differently: art galleries, low rent opportunities for creative folks, live/work spaces with a bit of a planning blind eye turned to use classes? Instead of looking for a developer in a shiny suit should we be looking for someone with a funny beard who want cheap space so he can give the bedroom back to his new child? Or a couple or women wanting to run painting classes and need a space to do this and then show off the masterpieces produced by their students?
What I do know is that, unless we think differently about the centre, there will be no salvation, no happy future. It will carry on being what it is today – a place with a few good bits and far too many bad bits, a place that half of the City’s residents never visit (except, for some, a quick dash in to catch a show at the Alhambra or to take the grandkids to the museum). What I also know is that the Council will help different things happen. But the Council isn’t going to instigate, isn’t going to initiate. Not because it’s a bad council but because the public sector (and I include the university, for all its pretensions, in this scope) really isn’t good at innovation, initiation and doing things differently – it’s far better to have us run along behind helping out while trying to take a bit of the credit.
In the end it’s our city centre not Bradford Council’s city centre. And if we want it to be better we’ve got to ask how that happens. In the end the Council will continue to do things – a little development here, some planting there, perhaps even building a new woodland park at the top of town instead of some more cheap housing the centre of Bradford doesn’t need. But if we want a great city centre, we’ve need the sort of things – private sector things – that make city centres work. The days are gone when national retail chains or nightclubs run by large brewery chains provided the answer. We need something a bit different – from the Council maybe but mostly from all the folk sitting staring at their suburban gardens wondering whether they should get an office somewhere, from the people in a call centre who’ve an idea for an app, and for a thousand others who want to build, brew, bake, talk, sing, paint, make baskets or arrange flowers.
The city of times past wasn’t the creation of local council plans and schemes, however much Stanley Wardley seemed to think, but was the result of a myriad of business choices, investments and initiatives all supported by the Council and the councillors. We need to return to this place, to realise that it is individual people, businesses and other groups or organisation that make a place work and that this cannot be done by a Council. So long as our answer to the question “what would make Bradford city centre better” starts with “the Council must…”, there is little prospect of us getting the place we’d all like – filled with fun, busy-ness and brilliance.
Do you disagree or have a different opinion you’d like to share? If you’d like to write our next Notes from the City blog, drop us a line…
Please note, all views and opinions expressed in our guest blogs are those of the author, and not necessarily Bradford Civic Society.