Margaret Eaton: Proud city of contrasts that is rising to its many challenges

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THE view of Bradford from those who do not know it first hand is coloured by a range of clichés and negative media stereotypes, many of which are anachronistic and often caricatured.

However, of course, the true picture of Bradford is more complex, more nuanced and certainly more positive than these stereotypes would have you believe.

The district is the fourth largest metropolitan district in England after Birmingham, Leeds and Sheffield. It is home to half a million people, a place characterised by diversity, huge contrasts in geography, wealth and built environment, communities of many cultures and ethnicities, and a place which typifies the complex range of socioeconomic, environmental and political problems and opportunities, which is the stuff of contemporary public policy.

What surprises many visitors and is perhaps unique among metropolitan districts is that two-thirds of the district is rural. The city of Bradford’s urban and cosmopolitan qualities contrast with, and complement those of, a number of vibrant towns and a host of Pennine villages.

Furthermore, this diverse human settlement is set within a spectacular Yorkshire landscape of upland moors, wooded valleys and productive farmland.

This multi-faceted environment provides the public bodies within the district with distinct and complex planning and delivery challenges when attempting to balance the conflicting needs and interests of the economy, the environment and communities.

It is 12 years since the inner-city riots with which we are often still associated. In that time, our local economy has waxed and waned in line with national economic cycles, although underlying and positive structural changes have begun to take root.

It is also noteworthy that during this period community relations have been mostly good and have improved, despite a dynamic picture of inward migration. Bradford is probably one of the few places where relations between different faith communities are such that the Council of Mosques has provided financial support to the Jewish community to enable it to complete major repairs to the synagogue.

The development of good community relations is supported and enhanced by groups such as the charity Near Neighbours which works at grass-roots level, encouraging people from different ethnic groups to share in community activity.

Bradford’s population is now 524,600, and its growth is forecast to continue, reaching 640,000 by 2033. However, along with this dynamic population change, the district has significant economic inequalities.

Eleven per cent of the population is in the most affluent decile and 40 per cent is in the least affluent decile of the United Kingdom.

Bradford is a big economy, creating £8.3bn of added value to the UK, forming the eighth largest economy in England and amounting to a fifth of West Yorkshire’s businesses and output. The council and its business partners have agreed to promote it as “The Producer City”, providing a distinctive economic identity for Bradford based on real strengths in key industries and businesses.

Bradford has a low-wage, low-skills economy, and over the next 10 years the working-age population of the district is projected to rise by 2,000 people per year. This population growth is driving a real need for jobs growth. To maintain current employment rates of 64.9 per cent, an additional 10,000 people will have to find employment by 2021. Improving education and skills levels is essential to future prosperity.

The council is working with a range of business partners on the Get Bradford Working programme, investing in apprenticeships, skills development and the creation of industrial centres of excellence, all of which are paying dividends. The Government is currently consulting on a West Yorkshire combined authority, which Bradford wishes to see progress. Work has now begun on the long-awaited £260m Westfield shopping centre, and with the formation of the new private sector-led Producer City board, there is increasing momentum for a significant upturn in the economy. Government support for Bradford’s economic ambition, and the work of the new Producer City board with the Leeds city region LEP, will be crucial.

I therefore urge Ministers to extend Bradford’s city centre growth zone from December 2014 to March 2017.

Given the significant population growth in the Bradford district and the clear potential for significant economic growth, it is both surprising and disappointing that the key rail route through Bradford has not been included in the Government’s provisional plans for electrification between 2014 and 2019. Electrifying this route, which links Bradford with Leeds and Manchester and also provides a major commuter link with the towns along the Calder Valley, would have a range of benefits for the wider region as well as for Bradford.

Education standards in Bradford have historically been low, and this has held the district back economically. However, over the past decade and recently in particular, improvements in attainment have accelerated. The excellent partnership approach which includes community and faith schools, academies and free schools working together and challenging each other, has been praised and recognised by Sir Michael Wilshaw, head of Ofsted.

A considerable number of Roma families move to and settle in the Bradford district. Over 6,800 Slovakians and Czech Roma have established themselves in the district since 2000.

Many of the migrants come to the district with low levels of educational attainment and little experience in the formal employment sector, along with huge health issues and large families.

Levels of turbulence in these communities, owing to instability of employment, have an impact on schools and other services. A national Roma integration strategy would enable the Government to influence the policy towards Roma in their countries of origin, as well as their integration in places such as Bradford. I urge Ministers to consider working with Bradford to develop an effective Roma integration strategy.

There is a commitment from people and organisations in Bradford to use every opportunity to address the challenges facing them in a positive way. The requests I have made of the Government would provide a very welcome helping hand.

*Baroness Eaton is a Conservative peer, Tory councillor on Bradford Council for Bingley Rural and former chairman of the Local Government Association. She spoke in the House of Lords on Bradford’s future. This is an edited version.