'Why Bradford can fly if city gets transport, skills and culture right'

"I find myself fashionable all of a sudden, which I've never been in the past", says Susan Hinchcliffe, musing on the Government's new-found interest in the North of England.

It's a feeling the leader of Bradford council may have to get used to following the Conservatives' General Election victory, which included wins a host of former Labour strongholds around Yorkshire.

Since then the talk of Westminster is of how Boris Johnson will keep Tory MPs and their constituents in so-called 'red wall' seats happy by turning on the spending taps and potentially moving London institutions up North.

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"So, the North is fashionable, and that is great", says Coun Hinchcliffe. "But of course, we all need to know that it means something as well in practice and then the investment is following that."

Crucial to this task, she says, is that "people are now listening to what northern people have to say, they're starting to understand the North has felt that it's been a bit of a two track country".

"We have just as much potential here that the greater South East has, but we've not had the investment to make that growth accelerate, and that's what we need to see now."

The council leader, who also chairs the West Yorkshire Combined Authority responsible for promoting economic growth in the county, is well-placed to form a view of the contrasts between her native city and the capital.

Bradford council leader Susan Hinchcliffe. Pic: Tony Johnson

Born and bred in Bradford, she was working in the community on regeneration projects in Archway, north London, around the turn of the century when she joined the Labour party and became secretary of her local branch.

After selling the business she ran with her mother in 1995 she ended up in London, initially working for an internet marketing agency and joining the marketing and subscriptions team for a national newspaper.

And in the years before she went into politics full-time after being elected as council leader, she worked for one of the Prince of Wales' charities, Business in the Community, promoting responsible business.

It's been a varied career, which included a second-place finish behind Tory Philip Davies in the 2010 General Election in Shipley, and she adds: "No experience I've ever had has been lost in what I do now know whether it's marketing, running a small business or just communicating with people."

Bradford council leader Susan Hinchcliffe. Pic: Tony Johnson

Moving back to the city from London to be near her parents, Coun Hinchcliffe's family have been in Bradford for generations. "I'm the person in my family who's had the most benefit from Bradford," she says. "Previous generations didn't have it as good.

"Therefore I just think I have an opportunity and obligation to make sure Bradford's fit for the future and takes its rightful place in the North of England as a big metropolitan city with lots of young population, lots of global links. It feels like a real opportunity for us as a place that we've not yet grabbed and I think we're on the cusp of something, we really could achieve that this time."

Getting better connected is key to the success of a city that former Transport Secretary Chris Grayling described as being "woefully badly-served by transport".

For months a well-coordinated lobbying effort has been going on to ensure the planned Northern Powerhouse Rail high speed rail project has a stop in Bradford city centre.

With route plans currently being drawn up for the £39bn route connecting Leeds, Manchester and other northern cities, Coun Hinchcliffe says 2020 will be a "big year" in determining whether this has been a success.

"I've had lots of positive conversations with Ministers, and I think they are supportive of Bradford, obviously we need to go through the consultation and the route options", she says.

"But I am confident that is the time to Bradford to to be a stop on Northern Powerhouse Rail and to get its rightful place on that main line network."

She is also part of efforts to ensure West Yorkshire gets a long-awaited mass transit system, but as a leader of the youngest city in Europe she says she wants the issue of skills to get equal billing.

Chairing the Future-Ready Skills Commission, she leads a team of experts exploring how greater devolution can create a skills system that responds to the need of local economies.

Getting a West Yorkshire devolution deal would bring in £64m a year in extra resources to spend on adult education, but she says a wider problem is the centralised way the Department for Education works and the lack of local tailoring of schemes to train up the workforce.

"Actually it's not right that we live in a country where if you don't have all the qualifications and skills requirements you need by the age of 25, you can't do anything about it after that without paying your own money.

"It's not everybody who has got the financials to pay for their own course to do something, and to be able to leave work to do a course for a year, you know that's quite a hefty ask for somebody who's not got an awful lot of money.

"So what are we going to do about people who need those skills to get the jobs they need and employers need them to actually fuel their businesses as well?

"There's a real gap I think in this country between the skills requirements and the skills that people have and we need to bridge that gap. I think people are willing to do that but we need to give them the mechanisms to go and get those qualifications and those skills that they need to get the job they deserve."

In September a bid was launched for Bradford, which has some of the lowest levels of cultural engagement in the UK, to host the UK City of Culture in 2025.

The city council has pledged £400,000 towards the bid as part of a £1.4m package for cultural investment in the city.

And the bid is being led by the cultural sector in Bradford, backed by dozens of local groups including the Bronte Parsonage in Haworth.

Coun Hinchcliffe says the bid's director Richard Shaw, whose career has included roles at cultural and media organisations including the British Film Institute, the National Theatre and English National Ballet, is driving the project forward with "a lot of energy".

"And it's not just about 2025, the question that Rick has been asking is, it's just a staging post, 2025, where do you want to be in 2030, 2040, what does that look like, and that's what we're trying to aim at."

Bradford has its well-publicised problems, suffering some of the highest levels of child poverty in the country. But Coun Hinchcliffe says: "I'm clear that in Bradford if you get transport, skills and culture right, then this city can fly."

Does Bradford suffer from its perception outside the city boundaries not matching the reality? Possibly, she says, before adding: "I think we haven't got to have a chip on our shoulder about it.

"We have a working social history in Bradford, that we should be proud of, we have our own unique history that we shouldn't try and hide, and therefore we should be more confident as a place.

"And that's not about saying 'oh, we're different to how we're portrayed', it is about saying 'this is how we are, this is who we are, we've got a lot to offer, we've got this young population, we've got global links, let us be part of the story of success of this country', and we need to be out and proud telling that story."