Northern Powerhouse – What Bradford needs

This essay is one of several on the Northern Powerhouse. It uses Bradford as an illustration but the points below apply equally to many of the post-industrial medium sized towns in the north – Preston, Bolton, Huddersfield, Hull, Sunderland, Stoke etc. The Northern Powerhouse is centred around HS2/3 which are not needed. The recently announced northern “Industrial Strategy” is allocated £550m – one hundredth of the amount being spent on HS2.  Bradford certainly will not benefit from HS2 and neither will many other northern towns.

HS3 is also a “vanity project” – the (northern) city centre to city centre connections can be improved much more easily by upgrading rolling stock and lengthening trains. Most Cross Country and Trans-pennine (I refuse to add Express) trains are still only 4 carriages long. Improving transport links is about making them better for everyone, not just speeding up city centre to city centre journey times.

What people need from Transport

Railways are 19th century technology. We should be planning for the 21st century. Railways have a role to play in city centre to city centre transport but most people want good efficient LOCAL transport. The main flaw with fast rail transport is that it is city centre to city centre and most time is spent getting to and from the city centre. Few people live in Bradford and work in London. Some (but still relatively few) will work in Manchester but most will work either in Bradford itself or Leeds, Huddersfield, Shipley etc. This is where we should learn from German transport initiatives. Bradford and Stuttgart are the same size but the Stuttgart area public transport network is much, much more comprehensive (and cheaper) than Bradford’s. More importantly, German transport planners are looking at novel plans that provide unlimited door-to-door transportation for around £50 per person per month. So a person living in Clayton and working in Headingley (Leeds) would be picked-up by a “taxi”, taken to catch the train to Leeds and met in Leeds by another taxi that would take them to their workplace in Headingley. By 2030 driverless cars should be fairly commonplace, opening-up other possibilities – why own a car (or 2nd car) if you work from home 3-4 days a week and door-to-door transport is available “on demand” at a low cost?

Clayton (on the outskirts of Bradford) to Headingly is still quite a long commute. Most people prefer to live fairly close to their workplace, cutting travel time and costs. The same technology can be used to provide door-to-door transport over much shorter distances – think a bus with a variable route (similar to Uber’s “rideshare”).

Jobs

Manufacturing  industries – wool and cotton have gone and so have the jobs that surrounded them – textile machinery and clothing manufacture. They are not coming back.

Bradford, and similar towns have to work hard to create new jobs. Entrepreneurial drive is alive in the north, but needs more and better investment. Bradford can also “steal” jobs from the south – the north has many attractions when it comes to locating a business. Whether Brexit will encourage foreign firms to invest in the UK remains to be seen but I suspect that in the short term overseas companies will be reluctant to base their European operations in the UK.

The main factor impacting jobs (and transport) is that advances in communications technology (broadband) mean that many more people can work from home – perhaps only going into their workplace one or two days a week. This change in working practices is still at an early stage but more and more people, especially in the professional, clerical and support industries will be able to change where they work.

Just as machines and mills centralised the workplace, broadband (and we have a long way to go technically) liberates people from it. The need for transport reduces.

Housing

One advantage the north has over the south is that the cost of housing is significantly less. A £350k house in Cambridge or Winchester is £80k in Bradford. The north should be able to use this differential to attract jobs from the south (and overseas). Even though it is cheaper than the south the north still has a shortage of affordable, quality housing and councils need to build more. The north has lots of brownfield land. Councils have the powers to force development but fail to use them.

Good quality, affordable housing should be a basic human right in the UK. The White paper (7-Feb-2017) does little to address this. Even in the north, housing costs consume too much of household income. Again, look to Germany for examples of good quality affordable housing. The former French Barracks in Tubingen are a very good example of mixed-use development – work and living spaces – and the north has many sites with similar development potential.

Housing needs to be built to reflect the changing nature of work – back to the home-working weaver in his attic, with housing including a workspace.

Education

Bradford University was originally a technical university but seems to be suffering from the same problems that many other universities do at postgraduate level and in producing successful spin-out companies. If the UK is to flourish the focus has to be on STEM subjects and exploiting research.

Bradford schools were recently slated by Ofsted. The city has long had problems integrating immigrants but since most of the immigration took place in the 1970’s this should no longer be an issue. There should be no difficulty in recruiting teachers given the relatively low house prices and attractions of living around Bradford – part of “God’s own county”. We have a broken education system in the UK that needs a radical re-think.

GroupThink

I am not blaming Bradford Council specifically of this; the “Northern Powerhouse” concept has created it, with every local authority looking to see what they can get out of it (and HS2/3) rather than going back to first principles and looking what the region (and the people in it) really need /want. Few people in Bradford will say that they want to be able to get from Leeds to Manchester in 30 minutes.

A good example of the dangers of looking back to rail technology, is the demise of canals. Canal investors did not see railways coming, or appreciate the speed at which the rail network would grow. New technologies have the power to transform the way we live and work and we should be investing in them rather than white elephant vanity rail projects.

The emperor has no clothes

I know Bradford quite well, I met my wife (and the first non-white people in my life) there. It was in the early 1970s, the mills were still pushing out black smoke – “t’pigeons flew backwards to keep the soot out of their eyes”. Geographically it is built in a bowl, with the town centre in the bottom and the only ways out being up the valley (Shipley, Bingley, Keighley) or over the rim. I lived in Clayton and then Marlborough Road (just off Lumb Lane). I developed a deep affection for Bradford but it was totally different from Winchester where I grew up.

The geography caused the railway builders problems. No HS2/3 route will go through Bradford (or many other similar northern towns). The north needs huge investment, it was the first region of the industrial revolution and for many years Government spending on the North has been (transport, education) one half of that around London. My argument is that the money being spent on HS2/3 can be much better spent. The emperor has no clothes.

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One comment

  1. […] and the money can be spent far more effectively. We would look at what the Germans are doing on integrated door-to-door […]

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