Bradford's serious challenges ahead of UK City of Culture 2025 - David Behrens

Joy was unconfined in Bradford a month ago when it learnt it was to be the UK’s City of Culture in 2025 – and with good reason.

Not since the local football club was briefly promoted to the Premiership 25 years earlier had there been such a sweet victory.

But now that the smoke from the celebratory fireworks has drifted away, we can begin to see the challenges that lie ahead if the city is to live up to the expectation invested in it.

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It knows already that culture cannot just be window dressing; a sticking plaster to hide the broken fabric beneath. It must underpin the lifeblood of the community. Yet to judge from what has happened in the few weeks since the announcement, this is a city still in need of healing.

The moment Bradford found out it had been awarded 'City of Culture 2025' in Centenary Square. Picture: Bruce Rollinson.The moment Bradford found out it had been awarded 'City of Culture 2025' in Centenary Square. Picture: Bruce Rollinson.
The moment Bradford found out it had been awarded 'City of Culture 2025' in Centenary Square. Picture: Bruce Rollinson.

On Tuesday, Kersten England, the council’s chief executive, admitted to MPs that she had considered resigning from her £194,000 post over the failure of her staff to prevent the murder of a 16-month-old toddler, Star Hobson, by her mother’s partner. As a result of that tragedy and others, the council has been stripped of responsibility for running children’s social care services.

It was not an unexpected outcome. Four years earlier, the department had been issued with a “notice to improve” by Ofsted – but instead of rising to the challenge, its performance got worse.

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This wasn’t the first time the council had failed in some of its most fundamental duties. In 2001 Ofsted ruled it was unfit to run the district’s schools, prompting the Labour government to hand the job to a private contractor. It was a decade before the council was allowed to take back control, and it may be as long again before it resumes caring for children.

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Does any of that sound like the apparatus of a cultured city?

Nor was there much artistic licence in the air three weeks ago, when the local multiplex cancelled screenings of The Lady of Heaven, a film which angered some Muslims for portraying the Prophet Muhammad’s daughter. The protests over its release were not exclusive to Bradford but it was there that its prohibition really hit home. Artistic expression is inseparable from culture; you can’t have one without the other, and the ban threatened to make a mockery of the city’s newly-won title.

Here too, Bradford had seen it all before. In 1985, the Birmingham Royal Ballet was threatened with censorship by the city elders for staging a production about the homosexual King Edward II. It was an acclaimed adaptation of Christopher Marlowe’s play, choreographed by Sir David Bintley – who happens to hail from up the road in Huddersfield – but Bradford deemed it obscene, even when no-one there had seen it.

Times have changed since 1985, but The Lady of Heaven protests demonstrate that those with the loudest voices can still be the arbiters of taste. As Baroness Fox said at the time, its banning was “disastrous for the arts”, and her words must have stung like a slap in the face for those in Bradford’s arts community who had worked so hard to bring home the title.

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The city will have to reconcile all of these anomalies as it sets out its stall for 2025 – and it will also have to address the prevailing view in some of its more marketable areas that they ought not to be part of the district at all.

Five months ago, Robbie Moore was arguing in the Commons that Ilkley should be self-governing, along with other towns that were being used as cash cows by distant Town Halls for very little in return. His attempt fell by the wayside but the sentiment remains.

The good news about 2025 – and it really is good news – might placate the residents of Ilkley for now. Certainly it is a chance for the council to prove its worth to them, as well as to the arts community and, crucially, to its own vulnerable children.

The eyes of the nation will be upon it – and if Ms England’s staff fail to rise to the challenge this time, they will condemn the district to an even shorter spell in the spotlight than poor old Bradford City.