Friday, 4 March 2011

Bradford's had its fill of "regeneration" - we don't need any more grand plans from outside experts

For six years I was Bradford’s Executive Portfolio holder for Regeneration – so I guess you’re welcome to blame me for all the trial and tribulations, holes in the ground and aborted projects that have plagued our mighty city. However, I had to crack a wry smile at Julian Dobson’s post on Bradford’s regeneration and especially its relationship with Leeds:

There’s a popular view in Bradford that the city is the poor relation of neighbouring Leeds - that the money flows into Leeds, as evidenced by speculative development, big name shops and a busy nightlife, and that to compete Bradford should become more like its rival, only cheaper. Yet Bradford has plenty of potential of its own, if only it could see beyond its disadvantages.

And why should Bradford seek to emulate Leeds anyway? As Brian Ablett, who works for Leeds City Council and spoke at our workshop, pointed out, that isn’t how they see it across the boundary. Leeds doesn’t look over its shoulder to see if Bradford is catching up. Its comparator cities aren’t even Manchester or Newcastle or Birmingham. It’s better to compare Leeds with cities like Rotterdam, Ablett suggested - cities that are modelling a distinctive approach to urbanism and economic development in a European context.

If I had a quid for each time I’ve heard this said – or variations on its theme – I’d have the cash to take a trip to one of those super-duper sustainable cities in mainland Europe that Julian likes to tell us about. And would I learn anything as they showed me all the shiny bits they like to show to visitors? Are we going to get a chance to see the grubby underside of these places – the disaster that is Rotterdam’s community cohesion or the problems with racist football violence in Germany?

Of course not, nor would I expect that of these places. But I do find the idea that we should simply take these overseas models and import them to a place like Bradford incredibly patronising. Indeed, I’ve listened for years as the examples of such places are waved before me – ignoring unemployment, racism and high costs let alone recognising the very different systems of local financing in these places.

Bradford is a great place that had its soul battered by being told how bad it was for years. Bradford’s leadership in the 1990s – a Labour group obsessed with political advantage – conducted a long campaign to capture extra money from central government. Barely a week passed without some delegation or other wending its way south, begging bowl in hand – like the civic version of Oliver; “can we have some more please Mr Government Man?”

And we came to believe our press – to believe that we were a basket case with no hope of improvement without vast charity from elsewhere in the land. It’s no surprise we turned an envious gaze towards Leeds and its big shiny regeneration, its gleaming skyscrapers and grand schemes. People didn’t ask for us to major on “liveable space and effective public transport” or to “value local distinctiveness and production”. They wanted some better shopping, for some more jobs in the centre and a few more amenities, stuff for folk to do.

And that’s what we tried to do – a process not helped by having an “urban development company” shoved at us, not assisted by the decision of John Prescott to refuse planning for the Odsal redevelopment and definitely not helped by the changing ownership of our developer partner on the Broadway development. Worst of all we were stalled and stymied by Yorkshire Forward – firstly while they tried to turn an ‘anti-development’ masterplan into a developer model and then as they first bought the former Odeon and then stood by while it slowly rotted.

But we did deliver something - Manningham Mills was brought back to life, we began to notice how, with a little effort the towns of Shipley, Bingley and Keighley could begin to thrive again and we opened a new art gallery, spruced up Manningham Park and started the same process for Roberts' Park. We turned round the markets - redeveloping John Street and investing in Kirkgate, St James Wholesale and Keighley.

And we put on events - encouraging the Mela to thrive, supporting City Centre animation and bringing 450 international market traders to the City on two occasions in a great international markets festival.

So when people arrive from out of town lecturing Bradford about European cities, sustainability and such marvels the world would never appreciate, I’m not impressed. I don’t see any understanding of how Bradford has evolved and is evolving, I see no recognition that trying to make the City like some provincial German market town isn’t going to work and I see, yet again, the curse of planning that blighted the City in the 1950s, the 1960s and the 2000s.

After 40 years of “regeneration” starting back in the late 1960s, we have made little progress in England. Generally speaking the same places that were poor in 1968 are still relatively poor today – Canning Town, Harehills, West Bowling, Aston, Moss Side and so forth. More planning, more experts, and more trips to fancy foreign places: none of this is what Bradford needs.

Yet that is what we will get. And it won’t work.

But what do I know, I only live here!


1 comment:

Julian Dobson said...

Simon, I suppose, Oscar Wilde-style, I should thank you for the backhanded compliment. But I do think you missed the point of my post.

It wasn't to say anyone else should tell Bradford what to do. It was to say Bradford doesn't have to look to Leeds or London for ideas, but can find them from a much wider palette of resources and experience.

I'm all for independence and localism. But i think it works best when it's combined with interdependence and internationalism. But as you say, what do I know?