Little Germany in Bradford has a special place in URBED’s history. We first worked there in 1986 developing a strategy for the regeneration of what is probably the finest collection of late Victorian textile warehouses in the country. As a result of this in 1990 URBED secured funding to run a two year action research project (Little Germany Action) and appointed a young planner from Manchester as project manager – a certain David Rudlin.
Our 40th anniversary event took place in the Design Exchange, a council-owned managed workspace scheme in the middle of Little Germany (for which URBED did the business plan). The building remains successful but out the window the surrounding warehouses are suffering vacancy levels similar to those in 1986. As we would hear during the course of the evening, Little Germany has been regenerated at least twice in the intervening years.
It’s buildings have been cleaned and restored, its public realm revamped, its vacant floors space filled with apartments and business space and its streets animated, admittedly sparsely, with bars and cafes. The problem is that the regeneration has not really stuck. Like Sisyphus, heroic efforts have pushed the bolder of regeneration up the hill. However, whereas in Covent Garden the boulder went over the crest of the hill and careered, out of control down the other side, in Little Germany, soon as regeneration efforts slackened the boulder rolled back town to where it started. Much of the evening was spent discussing why this happened and what might have been done differently.
The evening was introduced with some slides from URBED’s early work in little Germany. Our initial study had suggested that a derelict site at the centre of the area could become a new square and that this should be launched with a festival. One of the people engaged to organise the festival was Dusty Rhodes who would be speaking later in the evening. By 1990 the festival had grown into the Bradford Festival run by Dusty and his colleague Alan Brack. In a few more years this had grown to become the largest, most diverse community arts festival in England. It had a reputation for staging work that was both ambitious and accessible and was symbolic of a city that had become the cool part of the Leeds/Bradford conurbation. Little Germany Action played its part, staging events as part of the festival and hosting a three long month Summer Season in 1992. Little Germany Action combined this type of promotional event with practical actions to help bring buildings back into use. Despite having a tiny budget of £120,000 it worked and by the end of the two years vacancy levels had been reduced as new companies and uses were attracted into the area.
But it wasn’t to last. Within a few years the council had taken control of the festival and effectively killed it, although it dragged on for a few more years. Little Germany slipped back into decline and the city fell further and further behind Leeds. Later the area would be designated as an Urban Village manage by David Sougall who was also in the audience. This also succeeded in raising the area for a short time, but again it didn’t last.
Marc Cole in his presentation tried to explain why this was with reference to his time as director of development at the Bradford UrbanRegeneration Company (URC). His conclusion was that while Bradford might not have had the best of luck, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that it’s woes were also partly self-inflicted. When the URC was set up the council’s response was not to welcome the additional resources but to bemoan the imposition. The population of Bradford have not really bought into the city centre, the Asian community in particular being more engaged at the neighbourhood level. The political class, until recently were drawn from the surrounding towns and the active citizens channelled their efforts into campaigns like that to save the Odeon. The city’s flagship project, City Park which is now seen as a symbol of Bradford’s recovery, was almost refused planning permission, as a result of which it failed to secure Lottery funding. Even when it was developed, following heroic efforts by the council, the opening was marred by a demonstration by the ‘Save the Odeon’ group. Across town a large part of the town centre was demolished for the Westfield Shopping Centre that then stalled at the beginning of the recession and was mothballed for five years. Meanwhile very few of the thousands of apartments proposed on the 2000s were ever built and those that were have in some cases since halved in value. In such circumstances working in Bradford can be a thankless task.
Many of the people in the room had been engaged in this thankless task for many years. Dusty Rhodes has been involved in the Bradford creative community since his time as technical director at the Bradford Festival. his company Raise the Roof now provides staging, lighting and technical support for outdoor events. Dave West worked for the council for many years an now works on the regeneration of Little Germany albeit without sufficient resources. From the audience Simon Green spoke as former council leader while Nigel Grizzard, who was also involved in the first festival, has since works as an expert on the refurbishment of mills. There was a sense in the discussion that everything had been tried in Little Germany and a that nothing had really worked and nothing ever would.
Kate Dickson injected an external perspective, citing textile towns like Leipzig and Roubaix as well as her own experience as director of the Ancoats Building Preservation Trust. She showed that quarters such as little Germany can be brought back to life in much less auspicious circumstances. Dusty and Nigel recalled a discussion back in 1980s when they suggested that Little Germany be filled with creatives. There were (and indeed still are) enough artists and creative businesses in Bradford to fill every vacant inch of little Germany. Had it been done back then, the the area would have been regenerated years ago, regardless of what had happened around it in Bradford. It is not however too late, those creatives are still around. As Little Germany is reconnected to the city centre with the opening of the Westfield Shopping Centre, the regeneration of a thousand creatives is still possible and far more likely to succeed than big capital projects, or apartment schemes.