Bradford is celebrating: it has won the competition to become UK city of culture 2025. It will be the second Yorkshire city to be thus crowned since Hull enjoyed the title in 2017. And, like Hull, it has a lot to gain. It has long been overshadowed by its neighbour, Leeds, home to Opera North, Leeds Playhouse, and now Channel 4. One of Bradford’s most prominent institutions, the once-magnificent National Science and Media Museum, hit the headlines in recent years for all the wrong reasons. Having been through severe funding cuts, two changes of name and the controversial removal of 400,000 photographic images to the Victoria and Albert in London, the museum has experienced what a cynic might think of not so much as levelling up as levelling down.
But Bradford has a great deal going for it. Its cultural history is rich: JB Priestley, the author of the evergreen play An Inspector Calls, was a son of the city. His English Journey tracked a deeply divided, Depression-afflicted nation, and was part of a cultural tide that brought the Labour party to power in 1945. In Andrea Dunbar, who died in 1990 at the unthinkably early age of 29, Bradford birthed a major playwright who articulated with precision the texture of working-class life under the Thatcher government; her plays The Arbor and Rita, Sue and Bob Too stand as masterpieces. Her life in turn was documented by the film-maker Clio Barnard (born in nearby Otley), another of whose remarkable films, The Selfish Giant, is set in the city. In David Hockney, Bradford has a global artistic titan. Ten miles to the west lies Haworth, home of the Brontë sisters.
So much for its cultural heritage; the economic present is hardly straightforward. Austerity hit the city hard, and while the council has embarked on a long-term programme of infrastructural investment, news that the government is scrapping the eastern branch of HS2 – and scaling back promised “northern powerhouse” rail improvements between Manchester and Leeds – has been a severe blow. This in a city that has the dubious honour, according to a report published last November, of having the worst rail links in the country. There is no doubt that transforming the city’s rail connectivity would have a fundamental impact on the city’s prospects.
Bradford’s stint as city of culture, if carefully run, could have a lasting impact for the better. Under-18s account for 26.3% of the population, making it the UK’s youngest city. Ethnic minorities make up 36% of the population. The year as capital of culture is a chance for the energy of this young, diverse population to be harnessed. There is already excellent work going on: it is the home of, for example, the Bradford literature festival, the innovative arts producer The Brick Box, and The Leap, an initiative that seeks to help launch grassroots creative projects.
The proximity of Channel 4 is a major advantage, and the public-service implications of the potential connections with the broadcaster provide yet another reason why it ought not to be privatised. In all, a good week for Bradford, but there is a huge amount of work to do. Bradfordians will know already that the city of culture title should not only be about good headlines and filling hotel rooms – the real prize is to bring its people hope and fresh possibilities.
• This editorial was amended on 8 June 2022. An earlier version referred to the West Yorkshire Playhouse; the theatre reverted to its original name, Leeds Playhouse, in 2018.
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