Grand designs

Grand designs

Regeneration in Bradford city centre finally seems to be moving forward. But is everyone happy about that? Peter Baber finds out.

The news coming out of Bradford this summer should, on the face of it, have made even the most pessimistic Bradfordian joyful. It certainly gets Adrian Naylor, Bradford City Council’s executive member for regeneration and the economy, enthusiastic; as you might expect from someone who, after many years building up a family pharmacy business, is a recent recruit to the Conservative group on the council.

For a start there is the news that the City Park, including its famous mirror pool, is finally to go ahead after the council, Yorkshire Forward, the Homes and Communities Agency and the Regional Transport Board agreed to fund it.

Naylor is keen to stress just why the pool is significant – and not least because it will involve water returning to the city centre for the first time in decades, so that the second syllable in the name Bradford can once again be justified.

“The mirror pool is the size of two football pitches,” he says. “There will be 100 fountains, with one major one that will be 30 metres high. You will be able to adapt it so you can have mist to walk through, but no water. Or you can create a mini-lake 200mm deep, and if you allow that to drain slightly then special walkways within the lake will begin to appear.

“For the evening, you can drain the entire lake into a tank being created to hold the water and you will then have a space that can take 10,000 people. That kind of activity draws people into the city centre.” Bradford city centre should then be set for a run of major new events.

And with what seems like perfect timing, just a month after the news about the mirror pool, the council also granted outline planning permission for New Victoria Place, a mixed use development including a hotel and bars as well as office space that will link in to the City Park. So anyone visiting the city centre will have plenty to keep them amused and easily find somewhere to stay the night.

More reasons to head to Bradford: over the summer Bradford also became the first ever UNESCO City of Film, and with it became a member of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network that in the UK also includes Edinburgh (as a City of Literature) and Glasgow (as a City of Music). Naylor says this announcement has already increased Bradford’s profile on the international stage exponentially.

“One minute past midnight on the day it was announced the Hollywood Reporter was reporting about this,” he says, “and we noticed a pattern of media distribution enquiries running throughout India and elsewhere. Just this week I got an email from a company in California that manufactures fountains. This is activity that is focusing interest in Bradford.”

So does all this mean that Bradford is really going places, with everyone on board and cheering the plans on? Well no. Because all these supposedly positive improvements come with a qualification. Take the City of Film, for instance.

It wasn’t as if it was competitive bid for the title. The council just thought of the idea, and then approached UNESCO about it. Naylor, however, insists that the city is a worthy winner, thanks to its cinematic past and its thriving present day digital industry.

“It’s not my fault that nobody else thought of this,” Naylor points out. Having said that, it’s not actually possible to find out whether anyone else did think of it first. The labyrinthine rules that UNESCO has adopted mean that it cannot reveal what bids have been made from which cities around the world until and unless a bid is successful. But one thing is for certain: winning the bid doesn’t guarantee any extra funding for Bradford in its own right.

It’s about kudos. Then there’s that development at New Victoria Place. It will involve the destruction of the much-loved old Odeon Cinema, which has lain derelict since it closed in 2000. A surprisingly sophisticated opposition group called the Bradford Odeon Rescue Group (BORG) is campaigning to save the building.

The group wants to see the building retained, not necessarily as a cinema, but, according to group member Mark Nicholson, as a 3,000 seat theatrical venue. He claims surveyors’ reports show the building is commercially viable in its current state.

They claim it attracted 13 live enquiries after it placed a classified ad in the property press a year ago to gauge commercial interest. Local businessman Nirmal Singh even approached Yorkshire Forward, who bought the building in 2003, and offered to buy it for £3m, though he subsequently withdrew his offer.

Nicholson says this proves not enough effort has been put into retaining the building. “We haven’t got the resources to market it,” he says. “But Yorkshire Forward and the council have.

They just want to demolish it, and you have to ask why taxpayers’ money was spent buying a building that is now being hurriedly passed on to a private developer.

The wishes of local people are not being listened to.” That is perhaps an extreme reaction. David Green, the Labour opposition spokesman for regeneration on the council, says he certainly sees no irony in UNESCO’s first ever City of Film marking its inauguration by voting to demolish the only cinema building left in central Bradford.

“The cinema, even when it was open, was cruddy,” he says. “And the back of the building is just a red brick box.

But they could perhaps retain the towers at the front, as they are in keeping with the nearby Alhambra.” He is more concerned about what is being proposed to go in the cinema’s place, and whether there really is a demand for it. “I do think there is a question of sustainability,” he says, “and whether we will be having this same argument again in 20 or 30 years.” Such doubts are voiced even more forcefully by David Scougall, a former director of the British Urban Regeneration Association who has been involved with regeneration in Bradford in the past.

He says he has become so jaded with its progress that he has moved abroad to work on regeneration in the apparently more progressive former Eastern bloc.

“People in Bradford want the Odeon and have voiced this time and again,” he says. “And what will replace it? A computer generated building that will struggle to find occupiers for a very long time.” Even the City Park is not without its detractors.

Its backers say they have received the support of more than 30,000 local residents, though opponents claim this ‘support’ was generated by way of a button on a machine in Bradford city centre which people were asked to press. It could, its detractors say, easily have been misused.

But as a plan the scheme has already been rejected once. Significantly, the Big Lottery Fund refused to give it any backing in 2007, preferring instead to fund seemingly more esoteric projects at either far end of the British Isles.

And a campaign by Michael Ziff, chairman of Bradford’s urban regeneration company, to generate private sector funds didn’t really come to anything.

Given such setbacks, is it wise to press on? Naylor says it definitely is. “This is a major construction project starting during the recession that is fully funded,” he says. “It will enable us to use the supply chain within the Bradford district.

In terms of inward investment it is also a major statement for businesses wanting to relocate. How many city centres do you know that don’t have major accountancy and law firms? I’m aware one of the big accountancy firms - Baker Tilly - has been looking for accommodation in central Bradford.

As a result of us not having anything to suit their timescales, they relocated in Shipley. We are getting enquiries, but we don’t have the capacity to deal with them.” That may be so, but the fact that as much as £10m of council money is going into this project at this time has raised eyebrows.

Green, while not objecting to the mirror pool per se, wonders whether such money wouldn’t be better spent supporting local business. Scougall, too, is convinced the City Park is exactly the wrong thing.

“They should be looking at things like a rapid transport system to Leeds,” he says, “or improving access to Little Germany.” But Andrew Mason, director of Newmason Properties, whose Victoria Mills development in the city seems to have won praise from everyone, including Scougall, disagrees.

“What they are proposing with the City Park is bloody marvellous,” he says. “It shows the commitment of local politicians.

We’ve had too many nay-sayers here.” Mason, who is also chairman of the rapidly growing Bradford Property Forum, a group of private and public sector parties with interests in Bradford, is proud of his home town and you can sense his frustration.

“BCR have worked bloody hard,” he says.

“In any other economic climate, Westfield would have been up and running 18 months ago.” That is a reference to perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the Bradford story in recent years – the stalled new shopping centre that the developer Westfield planned for the city centre.

Everyone agreed Bradford’s retail offer needs to improve, and until the credit crunch the proposed centre would have included a major new Debenhams store. But for the moment the project remains a hole in the ground.

Westfield is concentrating instead on a new shopping centre near the Olympic site in Stratford, east London.

“What has happened in Bradford is not that unusual,” says BCR chief executive Maud Marshall, “and anyone expecting Westfield to take its eye off the Stratford City development would be kidding themselves.

That’s something we’re just going to have to sit out.” BCR is being wound up next year and reintegrated into the council itself (Marshall, a feisty Scot who has been very much its public face, is stepping down, and won’t say what she is doing next).

Does that mean the plans generated for Bradford in the past few years have come to nought? Green certainly points out that the Will Alsop masterplan that first mooted the mirror pool was generated as long ago as 2003.

“There is a danger that Bradford has missed the boat,” he says. Not surprisingly, Marshall disagrees. She says the masterplan helped to position the city, taking it up from a low point it had reached at the time of the Bradford riots.

And both she and Naylor can point to a very encouraging recent success: Provident Financial’s relocation of its head office in McAleer & Rushe’s Southgate development.

Provident Financial is a Bradford company through and through, but they both insist there was every possibility it might have relocated elsewhere. “They wanted to stay in Bradford because a workforce is here that has maybe had three generations of families in it,” says Marshall.

“But they were keen to move, and it was important a site was found for them in a relatively short timescale, and that is what has happened.” So commercial occupiers may be happy. But it’s a remark that Marshall made to me some years ago that can perhaps best sum up why Bradford has been such a special case.

She said then that Bradford people took more of an interest in what is happening to their city centre, and are more defensive about protecting it, because of mistakes that had been made in the past - primarily the decision in the 1960s to knock down the Swan Arcade, a Victorian gem much loved by local author J B Priestley, and replace it with a hideous construction that has already bitten the dust.

When you see the mileage Leeds has made with the Victoria Quarter you see why Bradfordians might be angry. And the ongoing campaigns about the Odeon and elsewhere suggest they still might be.