I recently had occasion to call at a splendid local bookbinder in Bradford. His workshop was situated in one of those blocks of 'chambers', complete with a rattling lattice-doored lift, that also used to provide low cost office and workshop accommodation in Leeds City Centre until replaced by expensive modern office blocks to maximise the developer's income. I was surprised by the difference between the two city centres. Bradford had many empty shops, perhaps only a quarter of the number of pedestrians that throng Leeds, and lacked that air of brash prosperity that has typified the Leeds of the past fifteen years or so.
This contrast between two great cities just ten miles apart cannot be good for either of them. Certainly prosperity is not only measured in economic terms, and Bradford retains its identity, its pride and its considerable cultural heritage, but the gap has grown too wide to ignore. It is bad for Bradford's pride and it feeds Leeds' arrogance!
I have a particular affection for Bradford following five great years there as the chief officer of its Council for Voluntary Service. This was in the late 1970s and early 1980s at a time of considerable government resources for what was known as the urban programme. The voluntary sector and the Metropolitan Council were lively partners in a burgeoning development programme. Such a partnership was unusual but there was enough confidence amongst all three party groups on the Council for them to be enthusiastic about joint schemes and projects that maximised the resources coming into Bradford. Much of the drive for this work came from Gordon Moore, one of the best - and most individual - Council Chief Executives I've ever known, and a man for whose manipulative skills the balance of power on the City Council was heaven sent!
In Bradford, being from Leeds was much more of a potential handicap than being a Liberal! When I started at the CVS, Bradford was Conservative controlled, and the council leader was Councillor Brian Womersley - plain spoken to the extent of bluntness. Early on I persuaded him, despite great reluctance on his part, to attend a meeting of voluntary sector leaders to discuss the Council's coming budget. As expected, he enjoyed the meeting, and afterwards he and I repaired to the Shoulder of Mutton in Kirkgate. After a pint or two of Sam Smith's, Councillor Womersley got rather more expansive: "When I heard you were coming to Bradford CVS I asked the Chief Executive, "do we have to nurture this viper to our bosom"" Gordon Moore said "yes", so we did."
On another occasion, I was in attendance at a Labour group meeting which was discussing the urban programme. My role was to provide information on voluntary sector projects. In the chair was Councillor Doris Birdsall, a splendidly folksy Labour veteran. I kept pushing a particular project that the voluntary sector was keen on, and it kept being ignored. Councillor Birdsall eventually got exasperated and said, "Look Michael has proposed and seconded that we accept this project." Reluctantly, honesty got the better of tactical advantage, and I replied, "I certainly can't propose and second something, and I doubt if I'm even entitled to propose it!" "Oh God," said Doris, "I'd forgotten you weren't a member of the Group." Then, turning to the meeting, she said, "Come on, let's take pity on the lad!" They duly did, and we got the project.
All this is by way of illustrating the vibrancy and individuality of Bradford, which makes the current economic situation so alarming. Part of the reason is historical. Whereas Leeds always had the benefit of a great variety of industry, with engineering, printing, clothing, and the financial services which supported them, Bradford, overwhelmingly, was wool. When developing countries began to produce cloth much more cheaply than Europe could, the textile industry began to decline, and so did Bradford. Bradford has been an astonishingly tolerant welcomer of immigrants, firstly from Germany and eastern Europe and latterly largely from Pakistan. Until recent economic difficulties brought significant unemployment and increased tensions, Bradford had avoided the disturbances that had marred relationships in other cities, such as London and Bristol.
Part of the reason is also its geography. Bradford was always an extra 'spur' from Wakefield or Leeds on the railway system and even now the line into the main Interchange is not electrified - the lack of a link line across Bradford means that Forster Square station has to be retained to provide a through service from London and the link with Ilkley and Skipton.
Part of the blame, unavoidably, falls on the politicians. Few people now defend the sixties development of the city centre, with its underpasses and its amorphous redevelopment. A new plan to restore the conviviality of the centre - the latest of many - has a real chance of being implemented and this will help the city's image. Whether the disaster of the loss of the Rawson Market and the fumbling of the plans for its renewal and then replacement can be overcome is another matter. The move - to Leeds - of Pratts and of (Brown Muffs) was a grievous loss.
At the heart of the solution, however, lies the inexorable law of the market. For years I've thought that the time must surely be at hand when the price of land and property in Leeds would lead businesses and developers to retain the benefits of being at the heart of the West Riding whilst taking advantage of the lower prices and cultural advantages next door in Bradford. It has taken some time for this to happen but there are at last a few promising signs. Once a trend starts it may well become cumulative and accelerate. I hope so. To meet for tea at Brown Muffs was once the height of Bradford 'chic'. To do the same at the transformed Wool Exchange could well be tomorrow's equivalent. The status of poor relation doesn't suit the people of Bradford and they don't deserve it.
3 October 2004