Bradford's back: Why the maligned Yorkshire city has just been named the most improved in the UK

City Park and the Mirror Pool
City Park and the Mirror Pool
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2008 was one of the lowest points in Bradford's post-war history.

The city was badly hit by the global recession and the most high-profile casualty was the Broadway shopping mall project, which was swiftly postponed, leaving only the despised 'hole in the ground' as a symbol of an ambitious but abandoned vision.

Bradford City Hall

Bradford City Hall

But it was the revival of the Broadway scheme and the leisure complex's belated opening in 2015 that has led to Bradford being named the UK's most improved city in a report this week.

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The survey commissioned by think tank Demos and accountancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers - who have recently opened a Bradford office - cited better health outcomes, an increase in employment rates and the impact of the Broadway development as reasons for this renaissance.

Over 40 towns and cities were included in the annual study and ranked on income, job and health prospects. Bradford has recorded the biggest fall in unemployment in the whole country during the past four years - from 10 per cent of the population out of work to 4.1 per cent. The level of skills among residents aged over 25 has also improved.

Bradford's buzz is back

Bradford Civic Society chair Si Cunningham claims there is far more of a 'buzz' in the city centre now compared to a decade ago.

He believes developments such as Bradford Live and City Park have helped to regenerate urban areas and boost local pride.

"It's very welcome news and shows that we are moving in the right direction in the long term. The fortunes of the city are getting better and I am cautiously optimistic.

"Demos and PwC are both respected organisations and people will pay attention to their findings. There are a lot of these surveys and reports that you have to take with a pinch of salt, but they have looked at many different factors and I recognise the Bradford that they're talking about."

"I actually think that the impact of the Broadway is debatable. Of course there was a huge recession and we still managed to deliver a shopping centre with major chains, but the challenges the high street faced were no different to any other city centre nationally. The delay allowed us to get ahead of the curve when it came to preparing for change.

"The Broadway meant that some of the old main shopping streets became redundant, although we now have the project to open the new market on Darley Street which is well-supported."

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"I think the change that stands out is City Park, which is one of the best public spaces in Europe, and possibly the world. People are very proud of it and there is a lot of symbolism around it. When it was first being planned, it was seen as ambitious and people thought we should have other priorities. But it shows what can happen when you think outside the box and deliver something. I believe City Park improves our health and wellbeing and it's a well-used, shared space."

Si now believes that for growth to continue, more major employers need to open offices in the city centre, following the example of finance giants PwC.

"When big companies like NEC, who are involved in the Odeon project, come here they see massive improvement. The rebirth of the Odeon as Bradford Live is a really big deal for Bradford - the building has a lot of history and it's a victory for people power and taking ownership. It's going to be a 4,000-capacity live music venue that any city would be proud of.

"We still need to do more to tackle low-level crime, and there is still a 'perception problem' - we need to make the place safer.

"We need to attract some more big companies to the city centre, which will bring in people with money to spend.

"Ten years ago, the area where the Broadway is now was desolate, scary - there was nothing there but boarded-up shops. It does have much more of a buzz about it now, you can't look around you and say there's nothing going on. St George's Hall has been refurbished, the Alhambra is a fantastic theatre - there's a really good offer here.

"We need more cranes in the sky, more building projects but I am more confident than I was 10 years ago."

The cherry on the cake

Si's views are echoed by Bradford Business Improvement District manager Jonny Noble. The BID was set up a year ago and is a not-for-profit organisation funded by subscribing businesses. They intend to spend £2.5million on revitalising the city centre over the next five years.

"It shows that we are travelling in the right direction. We often get reports sent to us which show an increase in footfall, and we speak to multinationals who are wanting to invest in Bradford. The survey affirms that.

"The Broadway has been a shot in the arm, as before it opened we didn't have a fantastic retail offer. City Park opening in 2012 was also a real catalyst for regeneration. Bradford Live, which will open in 18 months, is a significant development, as is the new market."

One of the BID's main objectives is to secure more Grade A office space in response to demand from professional services firms.

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"There is Number One City Park and Forster Square, and there's a refurbishment going on on Nelson Street. The demand is there.

"More Grade A offices are a no-brainer. We are seeing more of what we call 'alive after five' - a spike in evening footfall, with people eating and drinking in the city centre after work. We'd not seen that before and it is all down to the office sector."

Jonny also recognises that upskilling Bradford's young workforce is vital to its future prosperity.

"We have a young population and they need better skills so we can match them with opportunities. We need to make them work-ready.

"We have invested in street cleaning, in running big events - these are not statutory services but they are the cherry on the cake, and people welcome them. We will keep driving Bradford forward."

Bradford's shoots of growth

- The Broadway: Preparatory work for this flagship shopping and leisure destination began back in 2004, but the project failed to secure enough backing from potential retail tenants. It finally opened in 2015. It is home to over 70 stores.

- City Park: The public space around Grade I-listed Bradford City Hall was rejuvenated in 2012. Norfolk Gardens and Centenary Square were joined by the Mirror Pool, which consists of over 100 fountains - including the tallest in the UK.

- Lister Park: Bradford's Victorian park was donated to the city by mill baron Samuel Lister. At one point it had its own outdoor swimming pool, but this fell into disrepair in the 1980s and was eventually demolished. The park began to decline and suffered from crime and vandalism. A major facelift led to it winning the Britain's Best Park title in 2006. The boating lake has re-opened and there are new tennis courts, a bowling green, playground and water garden.

- Cartwright Hall: The mansion that stands in Lister Park was also a gift from Lister and has been the civic art gallery since 1904. It has benefitted from the park's increasing popularity, and now contains an exhibition of David Hockney's work.

- The Wool Exchange: Once the centre of Bradford life and the place where business deals were made. Wool trading ended in the 1970s, and the listed Victorian building has been given a new lease of life. The ground floor is occupied by bookstore Waterstones, and is said to be the chain's most attractive branch in the country. There is also the Exchange Ale House on the site.