Bradford is beautiful. So why isn’t it booming?

The Wool Exchange, Bradford. Image: Jon Farnam/Wikimedia Commons.

The latest instalment of our series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities. 

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.”

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

 
 
 
 

A new wave of remote workers could bring lasting change to pricey rental markets

There’s a wide world of speculation about the long-lasting changes to real estate caused by the coronavirus. (Valery Hache/AFP via Getty Images)

When the coronavirus spread around the world this spring, government-issued stay-at-home orders essentially forced a global social experiment on remote work.

Perhaps not surprisingly, people who are able to work from home generally like doing so. A recent survey from iOmetrics and Global Workplace Analytics on the work-from-home experience found that 68% of the 2,865 responses said they were “very successful working from home”, 76% want to continue working from home at least one day a week, and 16% don’t want to return to the office at all.

It’s not just employees who’ve gained this appreciation for remote work – several companies are acknowledging benefits from it as well. On 11 June, the workplace chat company Slack joined the growing number of companies that will allow employees to work from home even after the pandemic. “Most employees will have the option to work remotely on a permanent basis if they choose,” Slack said in a public statement, “and we will begin to increasingly hire employees who are permanently remote.”

This type of declaration has been echoing through workspaces since Twitter made its announcement on 12 May, particularly in the tech sector. Since then, companies including Coinbase, Square, Shopify, and Upwork have taken the same steps.


Remote work is much more accessible to white and higher-wage workers in tech, finance, and business services sectors, according to the Economic Policy Institute, and the concentration of these jobs in some major cities has contributed to ballooning housing costs in those markets. Much of the workforce that can work remotely is also more able to afford moving than those on lower incomes working in the hospitality or retail sectors. If they choose not to report back to HQ in San Francisco or New York City, for example, that could potentially have an effect on the white-hot rental and real estate markets in those and other cities.

Data from Zumper, an online apartment rental platform, suggests that some of the priciest rental markets in the US have already started to soften. In June, rent prices for San Francisco’s one- and two-bedroom apartments dropped more than 9% compared to one year before, according to the company’s monthly rent report. The figures were similar in nearby Silicon Valley hotspots of San Jose, Mountain View, Palo Alto.

Six of the 10 highest-rent cities in the US posted year-over-year declines, including New York City, Los Angeles, and Seattle. At the same time, rents increased in some cheaper cities that aren’t far from expensive ones: “In our top markets, while Boston and San Francisco rents were on the decline, Providence and Sacramento prices were both up around 5% last month,” Zumper reports.

In San Francisco, some property owners have begun offering a month or more of free rent to attract new tenants, KQED reports, and an April survey from the San Francisco Apartment Association showed 16% of rental housing providers had residents break a lease or unexpectedly give a 30-day notice to vacate.

It’s still too early to say how much of this movement can be attributed to remote work, layoffs or pay cuts, but some who see this time as an opportunity to move are taking it.

Jay Streets, who owns a two-unit house in San Francisco, says he recently had tenants give notice and move to Kentucky this spring.

“He worked for Google, she worked for another tech company,” Streets says. “When Covid happened, they were on vacation in Palm Springs and they didn’t come back.”

The couple kept the lease on their $4,500 two-bedroom apartment until Google announced its employees would be working from home for the rest of the year, at which point they officially moved out. “They couldn’t justify paying rent on an apartment they didn’t need,” Streets says.

When he re-listed the apartment in May for the same price, the requests poured in. “Overwhelmingly, everyone that came to look at it were all in the situation where they were now working from home,” he says. “They were all in one-bedrooms and they all wanted an extra bedroom because they were all working from home.”

In early June, Yessika Patapoff and her husband moved from San Francisco’s Lower Haight neighbourhood to Tiburon, a charming town north of the city. Patapoff is an attorney who’s been unemployed since before Covid-19 hit, and her husband is working from home. She says her husband’s employer has been flexible about working from home, but it is not currently a permanent situation. While they’re paying a similar price for housing, they now have more space, and no plans to move back.

“My husband and I were already growing tired of the city before Covid,” Patapoff says.

Similar stories emerged in the UK, where real estate markets almost completely stopped for 50 days during lockdown, causing a rush of demand when it reopened. “Enquiry activity has been extraordinary,” Damian Gray, head of Knight Frank’s Oxford office told World Property Journal. “I've never been contacted by so many people that want to live outside London."

Several estate agencies in London have reported a rush for properties since the market opened back up, particularly for more spacious properties with outdoor space. However, Mansion Global noted this is likely due to pent up demand from 50 days of almost complete real estate shutdown, so it’s hard to tell whether that trend will continue.

There’s a wide world of speculation about the long-lasting changes to real estate caused by the coronavirus, but many industry experts say there will indeed be change.

In May, The New York Times reported that three of New York City’s largest commercial tenants — Barclays, JP Morgan Chase and Morgan Stanley — have hinted that many of their employees likely won’t be returning to the office at the level they were pre-Covid.

Until workers are able to safely return to offices, it’s impossible to tell exactly how much office space will stay vacant post-pandemic. On one hand, businesses could require more space to account for physical distancing; on the other hand, they could embrace remote working permanently, or find some middle ground that brings fewer people into the office on a daily basis.

“It’s tough to say anything to the office market because most people are not back working in their office yet,” says Robert Knakal, chairman of JLL Capital Markets. “There will be changes in the office market and there will likely be changes in the residential market as well in terms of how buildings are maintained, constructed, [and] designed.”

Those who do return to the office may find a reversal of recent design trends that favoured open, airy layouts with desks clustered tightly together. “The space per employee likely to go up would counterbalance the folks who are no longer coming into the office,” Knakal says.

There has been some discussion of using newly vacant office space for residential needs, and while that’s appealing to housing advocates in cities that sorely need more housing, Bill Rudin, CEO of Rudin Management Company, recently told Spectrum News that the conversion process may be too difficult to be practical.

"I don’t know the amount of buildings out there that could be adapted," he said. "It’s very complicated and expensive.

While there’s been tumult in San Francisco’s rental scene, housing developers appear to still be moving forward with their plans, says Dan Sider, director of executive programs at the SF Planning Department.

“Despite the doom and gloom that we all read about daily, our office continues to see interest from the development community – particularly larger, more established developers – in both moving ahead with existing applications and in submitting new applications for large projects,” he says.

How demand for those projects might change and what it might do to improve affordable housing is still unknown, though “demand will recover,” Sider predicts.

Johanna Flashman is a freelance writer based in Oakland, California.