Report: Ten Towns: Bradford and Wolverhampton – first impressions

by Hugo Dixon

Last month CommonGround went to Bradford and Wolverhampton as part of our Ten Towns initiative. We’ll be back again in both cities next week. We have already held a small “huddle” in Wolverhampton. Our public discussion in Bradford, in association with Politics in the Pub, is this Monday, December 12, at 7pm.

Here are 12 first impressions.

  1. Both cities have strong local communities, friendly people and proud heritages going back to the industrial revolution and beyond. Bradford was the centre of the textile industry; Wolverhampton an engineering powerhouse.
  2. But both cities were also badly hit by deindustrialisation in the 1980s – and are still suffering the consequences. Bradford’s textile industry was hammered; Wolverhampton lost swathes of high-paid jobs in steel production, tyre manufacturing and so forth, though it still has a strong engineering base and has witnessed some important new investments such as that by Jaguar Land Rover. Some white working class communities have struggled since the 1980s with high levels of long-term unemployment and poverty.
  3. Both cities have large Asian populations – mainly Pakistani muslims in Bradford and Sikhs in Wolverhampton. Not surprisingly, they are also homes to some of Britain’s best curry houses. Cultural diversity is mentioned by some people in both cities as a source of strength. The racial tension of earlier decades is much reduced – partly because of effective action by civil society. Erik Pearse of Wolverhampton’s Interfaith Group – which was set up after Enoch Powell, a local MP, made his infamous “rivers of blood” speech criticising Commonwealth immigration in 1968 – says “we can gather faith leaders rapidly” at the first sign of trouble. Similarly, a Bradford community leader says that religious and civil society groups as well as government mobilise fast when the far-right English Defence League comes to town: “There’s a good level of trust – I can pick up the phone to the leader of the council and the bishop”.
  4. However, the white and Asian communities are still fairly separate. In Bradford, muslim women’s voices in particular are said to be marginalised. In parts of Wolverhampton, according to one interviewee, it has been hard to get Sikhs and white British children to attend the same schools.
  5. The voluntary sector in both cities is thriving. Many people are prepared to give their time to community activities. Bradford has a high level of volunteering. Wolverhampton has just decided to become a city of sanctuary.
  6. People in both cities are proud of their heritage. “I love our city. What I really like about Wolverhampton is the history” was one comment from our huddle; Wolves, the football club, “is in my heart” was another. However, there are more mixed views about the present, with many people in both Bradford and Wolverhampton pointing to a poor self-image. “We have an image problem – not just with the world but with ourselves. Bradford people think it’s a dump” said Simon Cooke, leader of the Conservative group in Bradford City council. Meanwhile, Geoff Layer, vice chancellor of Wolverhampton University, said there was “not much of a concept of civic pride” in the city and “it’s desperately in need of regeneration”.
  7. Both cities live in the shadow of bigger neighbours – Leeds in Bradford’s case and Birmingham in Wolverhampton’s. This has both disadvantages and advantages. One negative is that they feel they are poor relations. Most of the best jobs, shops, restaurants and cultural activities are in Leeds and Birmingham. Wolverhampton has “no night-time economy” said one interviewee. Not that this bothers everybody. One attendee at our huddle, who is a regular at a local pub, said: “I can’t remember the last time I went to Birmingham; I can’t see the point.” But having successful big cities on their doorstep could also be a benefit for Bradford and Wolverhampton – helping them succeed too – particularly if there were joined up economic plans for Yorkshire and the West Midlands. The fact that the cost of living, especially housing, is cheaper in Bradford and Wolverhampton than in their bigger neighbours is a competitive advantage –  although people complain that much housing is low quality.
  8. Bradford and Wolverhampton are both making efforts to revitalise their city centres – which used to be aesthetically unappealing and lacked good shops. People in both cities point out that many of those with the highest-paying jobs don’t live there or spend their money or leisure time there. “We have people living in Leeds, spending in Leeds, working in Bradford, but spending in Leeds” is a typical comment. This is why recent initiatives to improve the city centres such as Bradford’s City Park, the UK’s largest urban water feature, and the refurbishment of Wolverhampton’s Mander Shopping Centre, are so important. Vibrant city centres will entice people back – and can be one of the factors that could counteract the brain drain that both cities complain about.
  9. People in both cities also point to poor schools – and low skills. “Attainment is low and aspiration is low” is one comment from Wolverhampton. “We still fail too many kids” is a comment from Bradford. But they are starting to address the problem. In Wolverhampton, business is working with schools to improve skills and recruit apprentices. The university also has focussed on training local people to meet the specific needs of local industry.
  10. Both cities voted for Brexit. One of the main hopes is that this will lead to lower migration – an end to the “open door” policy according to one person who attended the Wolverhampton huddle. Sixth-form students in Bradford, by contrast, said there are “lots of advantages to immigration” although they agreed that the main reason people voted for Brexit was migrants. Another hope, in Wolverhampton, was that Brexit would deepen relations with Commonwealth countries such as India – building on Jaguar Land Rover, which is owned by India’s Tata. One economist in Bradford, who voted Leave, also told us he hoped “if we do it right with trade deals… that would be potentially wealth creative… That would be good for everywhere and anywhere, including Bradford.”
  11. But there were also fears about what Brexit would mean. In Wolverhampton, there is concern that its thriving engineering and aerospace industries could be harmed if Brexit leads to the imposition of tariffs and customs controls. There could also be a decline in foreign investment and a loss of foreign talent working in the industry and the universities. Bradford’s more domestically orientated economic base seems less exposed. But there are concerns that Brexit could damage the public finances leading to more austerity and spending cuts – which have already hit both cities hard. People are also worried that Brexit could lead to an increase in hate crime and xenophobia. “My main fear is whether Brexit will be divisive in terms of social cohesion” was one comment from Bradford. “Extremism” was the main concern flagged by one interviewee in Wolverhampton.
  12. Hardly anybody in either city has anything good to say about politics. There is a strong view that the people’s needs are ignored while politicians are in the business just for themselves. Here are some comments about politicians from sixth-form students at Bradford’s Grange Technology Trust: “corrupt”, “biased opinions”, “talk the talk but don’t walk the walk”, “false promises”, “cities like Bradford regress while others like London progress”.  Comments from our huddle in Wolverhampton were no more complimentary: “don’t like them”, “a waste of space”, “don’t think they serve the public” and “living off the gravy train”. This disengagement from politics is something all parties need to address.

These are very much first impressions from both cities. As we get to know Bradford and Wolverhampton better, we hope to produce some deeper insights. And we invite people who live in either city to get in touch and contribute to our Ten Towns project.