SI CUNNINGHAM was growing up in Bradford when Westfield first unveiled its grand plan for his city. Over a decade later, that shopping mall has finally opened. Here’s his account of what happened to Bradford during that time, and how there are already worrying similarities in Croydon
It was an irony that hadn’t been missed by some droller Bradfordians. The “big star” chosen to cut the ribbon at the city’s shiny new shopping centre was 2008’s X Factor winner Alexandra Burke. It was by 2008, of course, that Westfield had promised Bradford’s new Broadway centre would be up-and-running – seven years before the eventual ribbon-cutting.
But nay-saying and jokes aside, November 5, 2015, was the day Bradford finally started to feel like a city again. I was at the opening of Westfield’s Broadway to discover what impact it would have on Bradford, and whether it was worth the decade-long wait.
Demolition on the old Broadway started when I was still at school, in 2004, and that came with the promise of a bright new future for Bradford – with department stores, hundreds of new shops and restaurants, and thousands of jobs.
Then came the compulsory purchase orders. The long-established Italian restaurant was told to sling their hook, alongside the numerous high street brands such as BHS, who promised they’d pop back in a few years with a bigger and better new home.
But BHS never did return to Bradford, and the aforementioned family restaurant faced financial ruin after being forced to move into a new basement site.
We were assured that this was all a necessary upheaval, and a sure sign of the progress to come. Things were about to get very bleak for Bradford, however, and after years of delays and setbacks, at the height of the recession, Westfield formally put the scheme on hold – citing a lack of retailer interest. There were no department stores, no new shops, no jobs… just a huge hole in the centre of a once bustling city. Bradford became a ghost town as shoppers poured away to neighbouring Leeds and Huddersfield.
The “Bradford Hole” was something of a national poster boy for the recession and unfulfilled developers’ dreams. Yet those early days of Westfield’s Bradford debacle offer worrying similarities in my new, adopted home of Croydon. I hear the same rhetoric and corporate-sponsored optimism from developers that we were subjected to in Bradford in the early noughties; there is the same unbridled enthusiasm from the politicians and the obedient local rag; and – perhaps most importantly for the people of Croydon – the same steady decline of the established retail core as businesses decide to “go on a break” until any new centre comes to fruition.
Although Bradford and Croydon have been plagued by social problems – riots and bad reputations – they are very different towns (well, Bradford’s a city) with very different challenges. Croydon has excellent transport links and benefits from being part of London. Bradford, by comparison, is poorly connected and suffers from nearby Leeds being the region’s one and only significant economic hub. And while Croydon can boast a relatively buoyant office market, Bradford has waved goodbye to countless professional firms and white-collar workers in the last decade – with further job losses in the pipeline. Although Bradford is sort of going in the right direction regeneration-wise, it’s hard to imagine Croydon ever becoming as destitute as the Yorkshire city was during the worst years of the recession.
Yet the recent announcements of high-profile names quitting Croydon – while downplayed by the council leader – provoke a worrying reminder of what happened to Bradford in its Westfield construction years. People stopped coming into the town for leisure reasons, so businesses lost interest. Many retailers – with cynical long-term plans to eventually move into Westfield (whenever it might finally arrive) – saw little point in renewing their leases, and just quietly disappeared from the high street.
With soaring vacancy rates, the “broken window” effect began to take its toll, and the city centre started to look shabby and derelict. And then, with reduced footfall, it started to feel dangerous, too. With the affluent shoppers and drinkers gone, Bradford’s empty centre, with its once grand Victorian buildings and warehouses, became the domain of street drinkers and wannabe gangsters.
In Croydon, we’ve already started to hear of retailers heading for the hills ahead of the upheaval. We’ve heard how Marks and Spencer may not relocate during the Whitgift demolition phase, and we’ve seen brands like Pret A Manger quietly quit their locations, announcing that they’re “looking for alternative sites” in the near future.
During Bradford’s “Westfield development” years, the city centre lost more than a dozen high street names. Most have never returned. Even M&S, according to a Westfield source, were close to leaving Bradford when the scheme stalled in 2008.
But let’s move back to the Bradford of 2016, which is buzzing after its new centre has been trading for a couple of months. Westfield ended up selling the city centre site to Meyer Bergman – a European investment firm – although they agreed to build and manage it once it was open. That’s why it’s called “The Broadway” instead of “Westfield Bradford”, and although some locals see this as Westfield’s attempt to distance themselves from the city they failed for so long, many are just relieved that they don’t have to endure Westfield’s undoubtedly awful corporate logo hanging over their new shops.
The shopping centre itself is not without merit, and if it is to give the people of Croydon a hint of what they might expect in 2020, it is about as neat and shiny as shopping centres come, in that sort of acceptably bland way to which we’ve become accustomed. Personally speaking though, I think it’s pretty ugly and unsympathetic to the surrounding sandstone buildings that have stood proud for more than a hundred years.
While some effort has been made for the main entrances to integrate with Bradford’s historic streetscape, the materials used look plastic and cheap. You only need to check out how grubby Westfield’s Shepherd’s Bush elevations are now to see how their more recent developments might look in a few years.
The opening of The Broadway may also provide Croydon with a glimpse into what the rest of the town may look like once its new centre is built. That’s perhaps a little more worrying.
Bradford’s vast, hilly centre has been able to sustain a rival (albeit slightly dowdy) second centre – Kirkgate – which includes the type of bargain basement shops that don’t really have a place in the bold new world of aspirational brands.
Westfield’s downsizing of their Bradford scheme in order to attract a minimum threshold of retailers has been a blessing in disguise, as it has meant the likes of Primark and Argos have had to stay put in their old, established homes.
The hardest-hit area has been the city’s traditional high street – Darley Street – which is riddled with gaping holes now that its biggest tenants (including M&S, Topshop, H Samuel and Boots) have all moved into The Broadway.
Is this what a post-Westfield High Street or North End might look like for Croydon?
One radical solution to retail shift mooted by Bradford’s affable Labour council leader is to buy up the old vacant shops and flatten the lot of ’em, and creating a vast hilly garden instead… the Hanging Gardens of Bradford, if you will.
Could this be an achievable solution for Croydon? A new public square in place of St George’s Walk would be a fine addition to the town, and would connect the historic civic quarter with the new behemoth shopping palace (if it’s ever built, that is). Croydon could also do worse than to mimic Bradford’s successful “Growth Zone” scheme – which has allocated funds and rate rebates to areas left barren by the city’s new shopping centre. It’s resulted in a burgeoning independent drinking and dining scene that’s doing a damn good job of clawing back Bradford’s long dorment night-time economy.
Observing how Bradford’s development debacle has panned out, I think the biggest threat to Croydon’s immediate future is the “wait and see” brigade. These are the speculative developers and punters – dipping their toes in the waters of change, but not fully committing or immersing themselves until others do.
Frankly, these people don’t care about your town, or mine, or any for that matter. Like Westfield, they just want to make as much money as possible. That’s why many developers who snapped up properties adjacent to Bradford’s new centre promised “exciting” and “innovative”, big investment developments – many of which are yet to materialise.
I am reminded of similar rhetoric from the new owners of Grants in Croydon, who will probably be planning any future investment to coincide with what’s happening over the road. These people talk glibly of “a lot of interest from operators and retailers” but when pushed, can never name any of them – usually for “legal reasons”, or they cite “commercial confidentiality”.
In reality, it’s all a big waiting game, and even though Bradford’s vibrant new centre is to be welcomed, at what cost has it come for the city’s wider reputation?
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