Andrews contributions in the Local Regenerator: Industrial Areas

Hansard Contributions By Lord Mawson (CB) On Thursday 7th March 2024


Lord Mawson (CB)

“My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, for initiating the debate. I know she cares a great deal about these issues and the local communities they affect, many of which are in very challenged circumstances.

I start with a telling story that encapsulates what happened in one of our former industrial areas. My mother died in Bradford, at 104 years of age, last June. She lived most of her life there, my hometown. Her father ran an ice cream shop in Oak Lane, just below the 27-acre site of what was then Lister Mills. It was originally a sweet shop, but my grandfather was so skilled at making brilliant ice cream, which he sold literally in bucketloads to thousands of workers at the mill, that the sweets and chocolates went the way of the world; he focused on what sold.

Some 150 people, mainly old Bradfordians, turned up at my mother’s 100th birthday party in 2018. She was still well networked from her armchair, through the use of her trusted telephone. The day before the party, I picked up an old brochure in Haworth, Brontë land, about the Bradford festival in 1931. Both my mother and father attended this amazing event in the city when they were at school, but they did not know each other at that time. Everyone was there—the mayor, the council, businesspeople and all the schools. My mother still remembered the excitement of it all.

In the brochure you got a real sense of the dynamic economy in Bradford at that time and a landscape defined by woollen mills and a culture of entrepreneurship. Bradford was described as the second most successful city outside London. I was told that, in 1931, Lister Mills had recently won the order for the velvet curtains for the White House—not bad. In my mother’s lifetime, this former industrial city, largely run by woollen entrepreneurs and successful businesspeople, fell to the position it holds today. What happened in one lifetime?

My colleagues and I have been working in Bradford over the last six years—I declare my interests—and I have returned to have a good look under the carpet. The first thing that strikes you is that there are still some amazing entrepreneurial people in Bradford. Pull back the carpet and you will find the Pakistani-owned cake business, in a back street, which has supplied more than 1 billion fairy cakes to Tesco. This baker then spent more than £1 million trying to restore and maintain a grade 2 listed mill complex of 400,000 square feet—impressive.

Six years ago, I was invited by the dean of Bradford Cathedral to speak at an evening event about our work in the East End of London and the Olympic legacy project, which was focused on the derelict rail and industrial lands in Stratford which I had been involved in from day one for 19 years. I described how in Bromley-by-Bow we had fostered an entrepreneurial culture against the odds in what was originally a failing group of housing estates, opposite what is now the Olympic park. The cathedral was packed. I then invited the massively impressive Bradford architect and business entrepreneur Amir Hussain to join me on stage. Amir had some really inspiring plans for some empty mills in the city, some of them still amazing industrial buildings but derelict. When I had finished my bit, Amir took us all through the list of Bradford’s former lord mayors, an amazing list of successful woollen entrepreneurs who were focused on building high-quality buildings, growing an industry that now had relationships across the world, and making theirs the best city in the country. They were practical Yorkshire people who invested in education, the arts and culture, and improved people’s lives and health. When Titus Salt, the former mayor, died, thousands of Bradfordians turned out for his funeral—again, not bad.

Amir then took us through the list of successful entrepreneurs in the city today, many of them women, many Asian and most of them young. How many of these practical, impressive people who were building and running businesses in the city were on the council today? The answer is none. Amir tells me that they were too busy running their businesses and being practical—very Yorkshire. These are serious questions. Who are we looking to if we want to rebuild our industrial sites and grapple with the broken machinery of the state? It is not the talkers; it has to be the doers. They are committed, practical people and the only ones who understand the real issues, precisely because they have done it. In my experience these people are everywhere, in plain sight, but our systems and processes often do not recognise them and have little understanding of their significance for a city. We need to find them, back them based on their track record and certainly resource them. We need to get interested in people again, not endless processes.

Those who are real doers are often slightly disruptive and, yes, difficult people who ask difficult questions. As a result, they tend not to be the people who are influencing the policies and details of national, regional or local government. As a result, we do not harness those with real skills, innovation and entrepreneurial flair. Therefore, unsurprisingly, government continues to underperform. It is all about people, not structures and policy. It is about those who act.

Amir Hussain, who I mentioned, runs a dynamic and innovative data technology company as one of several businesses in the city. He reflects on Lister Mills today, where an ambitious and incomplete apartment development has done little to stimulate regeneration. Not one new café, office or business can be attributed to the development, and the apartment values have slumped to less than half the original selling price despite many millions of pounds of government grant funding. Yet within this magnificent industrial complex reside sophisticated businesses such as Haddow, run by James Nimmo, producing textile designs for some of the biggest names in the world. Amir relates his shock at finding that there were more than 100 trendy young designers, as he called them, beavering away deep inside the old weaving sheds, in a scene reminiscent of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, but no one had noticed.

Compounding this, he told me, is the fact that our approach to data is inadvertently undermining places such as Bradford. During a collaborative meeting with the credit reference agency Experian, Amir had it analyse his own neighbourhood, just a mile away from Lister Mills. The findings were shocking. According to Experian, no one had any money, all were financially stretched and they predominantly shopped at discount stores, and therefore this area should be avoided by brands such as Nando’s, Costa, PureGym, et cetera. It was obvious to the practitioner Amir that something was very wrong, not least because there were people on his street owning brand-new Rolls-Royces. The fact that the area is 70% Pakistani Muslim had gone unnoticed. The data did not recognise that this demographic has different financial habits such as a greater use of cash, buying second and third houses, and building house extensions. In this community, the prevalence of gold shops and dessert parlours would be a far better indicator of financial capacity than credit card use.

Bradford is a success story because these people are there—I have met them, and they care about the future of their city—but I am afraid that the siloed systems and processes of the state are not fit for purpose. This city is not attracting serious, experienced and talented leadership, and when they come, they do not stay long. Who was the last Cabinet Secretary to visit Bradford who got under the carpet and took a look and an interest in these entrepreneurial people and the implementation issues they are facing as they attempt to make their businesses and their city a success? It is all about people and not process; it is about the quality of people such as Alan Bates, who cared for 20 years and got stuck in. There are people like Alan in Bradford, hiding in plain sight.

This all throws up difficult questions for all our political parties about the calibre and experience of the people they are selecting who claim to represent our cities and communities such as this one. What have many of them built? What have they done? What have they achieved in practice? Are they asking the right questions?

These questions also apply, of course, to your Lordships’ House. It has been suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, that a Peer of the realm should be chosen on “conspicuous merit”—not a bad measure, and a challenge to us all and to our political parties. Is this the benchmark we need for those who would claim to represent us at all levels?

I will finish by taking noble Lords to Fox Valley, in Stocksbridge, on the edge of Sheffield, where the paragon umbrella frame was invented. There, a local family who cared about where they lived—Mark Dransfield and his late wife, Deborah Holmes—took the risk of taking hold of a former derelict steelworks site, put their hard-earned money in, and grappled with the often very unhelpful machinery and infrastructure of the state. Hundreds of new jobs have been created there and many new businesses, new retail space and offices, and 115 new homes, with a thousand more planned. The centre is like a piece of theatre; so many community events happen there. I encourage noble Lords to go and have a look for themselves on the internet at the quality of this development. Go and visit and taste the quality of the food at Ponti’s restaurant—the first outside London. It is a great day out. My mother went, and she loved it.

Someone cared enough, someone took the long view, and someone took risks. It was Mark and Deborah. Joanna Lumley, who opened Fox Valley in 2016, said that she had never seen anything quite like it anywhere in the south of England: the attention to detail; a development that transformed a former steel town; a meeting place where work and leisure engage with high-quality public realm and architecture. Land that had laid derelict for 10 years, deepening the spiralling decline of the town, had become the catalyst for transformation—all down to two practical people who cared about where they lived.

In closing, I ask the Minister: what percentage of levelling-up funding has not actually been spent since its launch in 2020? Why might this be?”

The full debate can be viewed here.