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

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

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

 
 
 
 

What does the fate of Detroit tell us about the future of Silicon Valley?

Detroit, 2008. Image: Getty.

There was a time when California’s Santa Clara Valley, bucolic home to orchards and vineyards, was known as “the valley of heart’s delight”. The same area was later dubbed “Silicon Valley,” shorthand for the high-tech combination of creativity, capital and California cool. However, a backlash is now well underway – even from the loyal gadget-reviewing press. Silicon Valley increasingly conjures something very different: exploitation, excess, and elitist detachment.

Today there are 23 active Superfund toxic waste cleanup sites in Santa Clara County, California. Its culture is equally unhealthy: Think of the Gamergate misogynist harassment campaigns, the entitled “tech bros” and rampant sexism and racism in Silicon Valley firms. These same companies demean the online public with privacy breaches and unauthorised sharing of users’ data. Thanks to the companies’ influences, it’s extremely expensive to live in the area. And transportation is so clogged that there are special buses bringing tech-sector workers to and from their jobs. Some critics even perceive threats to democracy itself.

In a word, Silicon Valley has become toxic.

Silicon Valley’s rise is well documented, but the backlash against its distinctive culture and unscrupulous corporations hints at an imminent twist in its fate. As historians of technology and industry, we find it helpful to step back from the breathless champions and critics of Silicon Valley and think about the long term. The rise and fall of another American economic powerhouse – Detroit – can help explain how regional reputations change over time.

The rise and fall of Detroit

The city of Detroit became a famous node of industrial capitalism thanks to the pioneers of the automotive age. Men such as Henry Ford, Horace and John Dodge, and William Durant cultivated Detroit’s image as a centre of technical novelty in the early 20th century.

The very name “Detroit” soon became a metonym for the industrial might of the American automotive industry and the source of American military power. General Motors president Charles E. Wilson’s remark that, “For years I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa,” was an arrogant but accurate account of Detroit’s place at the heart of American prosperity and global leadership.

The public’s view changed after the 1950s. The auto industry’s leading firms slid into bloated bureaucratic rigidity and lost ground to foreign competitors. By the 1980s, Detroit was the image of blown-out, depopulated post-industrialism.

In retrospect – and perhaps as a cautionary tale for Silicon Valley – the moral decline of Detroit’s elite was evident long before its economic decline. Henry Ford became famous in the pre-war era for the cars and trucks that carried his name, but he was also an anti-Semite, proto-fascist and notorious enemy of organised labor. Detroit also was the source of defective and deadly products that Ralph Nader criticized in 1965 as “unsafe at any speed”. Residents of the region now bear the costs of its amoral industrial past, beset with high unemployment and poisonous drinking water.


A new chapter for Silicon Valley

If the story of Detroit can be simplified as industrial prowess and national prestige, followed by moral and economic decay, what does that say about Silicon Valley? The term “Silicon Valley” first appeared in print in the early 1970s and gained widespread use throughout the decade. It combined both place and activity. The Santa Clara Valley, a relatively small area south of the San Francisco Bay, home to San Jose and a few other small cities, was the base for a computing revolution based on silicon chips. Companies and workers flocked to the Bay Area, seeking a pleasant climate, beautiful surroundings and affordable land.

By the 1980s, venture capitalists and companies in the Valley had mastered the silicon arts and were getting filthy, stinking rich. This was when “Silicon Valley” became shorthand for an industrial cluster where universities, entrepreneurs and capital markets fuelled technology-based economic development. Journalists fawned over successful companies like Intel, Cisco and Google, and analysts filled shelves with books and reports about how other regions could become the “next Silicon Valley”.

Many concluded that its culture set it apart. Boosters and publications like Wired magazine celebrated the combination of the Bay Area hippie legacy with the libertarian individualism embodied by the late Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow. The libertarian myth masked some crucial elements of Silicon Valley’s success – especially public funds dispersed through the U.S. Defense Department and Stanford University.

The ConversationIn retrospect, perhaps that ever-expanding gap between Californian dreams and American realities led to the undoing of Silicon Valley. Its detachment from the lives and concerns of ordinary Americans can be seen today in the unhinged Twitter rants of automaker Elon Musk, the extreme politics of PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, and the fatuous dreams of immortality of Google’s vitamin-popping director of engineering, Ray Kurzweil. Silicon Valley’s moral decline has never been clearer, and it now struggles to survive the toxic mess it has created.

Andrew L. Russell, Dean, College of Arts & Sciences; Professor of History, SUNY Polytechnic Institute and Lee Vinsel, Assistant Professor of Science and Technology Studies, Virginia Tech.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.