Mark Casci: An end at last to saga of city with hole at its heart

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Today a new shopping centre will open in Bradford.

To most around Yorkshire the opening of The Broadway – one of several names the scheme has been afforded since its inception – will be of little interest. It is one of the two being opened this week in our region, after the Flemingate centre in Beverley on Tuesday.

But for those in the BD postcode it is more than just another retail establishment, it represents the end of nearly two decades of intransigence which has caused heartfelt embarrassment to this proud and vibrant city.

For those unfamiliar with the context to its development (for those only too familiar with, it I apologise) the story begins in 1998, when the Blair administration was in its infancy and when Glen Hoddle’s England contested the World Cup in France.

A partnership between various development groups and the city’s council leaders resolved to create a new centre for people to go shopping in Bradford.

Following endless meetings and discussions the group sold the scheme to another developer, Stannifer.

Planning permission was granted and demolition work commenced, before Stannifer in turn sold the development on to the Australian group Westfield.

Westfield have shopping centres across the world, most notably next to the Olympic Park in London. Their setting up in Bradford attracted feverish reaction from the city’s leaders and media, who saw it as a massive vote of confidence. So blinded were they that they failed to establish a clear framework for how the scheme would actually come together, most notably, a timetable for construction. Westfield could hold on to the site for as long as it wanted. And it did.

The council failed not so much in what it did but in what it failed to do. In an era when regeneration schemes were sweeping northern cities it chose to rely on external help.

Bradford Centre Regeneration was created and would spend £35m of public money in its short time in existence. It was on its watch that the majority of this debacle unfolded.

By 2006 a sizeable part of the city centre was reduced to rubble. And then nothing happened.

Other construction projects from Westfield were given precedence. Anchor tenants began to get cold feet and jumped ship. Small businesses that had relied on the old retailers that had been demolished for survival closed.

Then the economic crash happened. Westfield, a global business with shareholders to consider, mothballed the site.

A city that once produced a sizeable proportion of the world’s textiles, helped invent the Industrial Revolution and gave us JB Priestley, was left facing the ignominy of a huge hole at its centre that made it a laughing stock.

So how have we got to here? There are three reasons.

Firstly, despite its economic disadvantages the recovery has helped to get Bradford back on its feet.

The second factor has been political leadership. While he is far from everyone’s cup of tea, the arrival of George Galloway as MP for Bradford West in 2012 saw him not only pull off a 52 per cent swing in the vote but also witnessed him quickly adopt the populist issue of Westfield.

While his three years in Bradford were marred by controversy, not least of which his conduct after losing his seat to Naz Shah in May, he shook off much of the inertia that had surrounded the key issues the city faced.

The majority of the political capital however lies with current council leader David Green who has, unlike his predecessors, refused to accept no for an answer. For the rest of his life he can drive past The Broadway and know he played a sizeable role in making it reality.

The real credit however goes to the people of Bradford. In 2012, inspired by the Occupy movement, committed citizens decided enough was enough and, thanks to a sympathetic person in City Hall, obtained keys to the site and moved in.

The Occupy Westfield movement was no rag tag of troublemakers. I met and interviewed them on the day they took to the site and they were businessmen and women, fathers and mothers, who had decided they alone had the power to affect change in their city.

The movement would dissolve very quickly but the relentless pressure from the people of Bradford remained. Ultimately this made the difference.

And so today it all ends. Or does it?

The pressure is now on Mr Green and his successors to deliver a sustainable and realistic future for the city in an era of increased devolution. And pie in the sky pledges will quite simply no longer be enough.

Won’t Get Fooled Again, sang The Who. That goes double in Bradford.