There’s a huge hole in the middle of Bradford. Watch the diggers preparing the ground for the massive Broadway shopping centre and swish new apartments, and you might imagine there had never been a credit crunch.
Planners and politicians can point to such projects as evidence that the economy is still in fine fettle, and the good times are only just beginning for some cities. You can almost picture the headline: Crisis? What crisis?
And they’re right in thinking that short term difficulties shouldn’t deflect us from the long term vision.
Bradford has ambitious plans for its future, and that’s good: nobody wants to pin their colours to the mast of mediocrity. But to imagine that normal service will be resumed in a year or two is a recipe for disaster.
Last week local government minister John Healey recognised what’s been staring us in the face for a year, and commissioned a study about the consequences of the credit crunch on regeneration.
It will be led by Michael Parkinson of Liverpool John Moores University, and let’s hope he has the courage to be the bearer of bad news to his paymasters.
It will be bad news because the credit crunch has revealed some deep fault lines in current models of regeneration.
Look at the recipe for urban renaissance followed slavishly from city to city and you’ll find two core ingredients: retail and city living.
Some cities have done it more intelligently than others, but our standard vision of a city centre is somewhere where you can shop, drink, eat, and sleep. It works well when there’s plenty. When times are tight, chic shops and swanky flats aren’t quite the necessities we once imagined.
The underlying economy may still be strong, but look at the writing on the wall. The soaring number of empty buy-to-let flats tells its own story – see the Empty Homes Agency’s latest figures, or check out Bradford & Bingley’s arrears statistics.
There’s many a social landlord eyeing those apartments up for a clientele with rather less spending power.
Similarly, cities seeking to capitalise on a boom in financial services might like to ponder the fact that there are only one fifth as many mortgage products on the market as there were one year ago. Translate that into jobs and do the maths.
And don’t imagine a change of government will make much difference. The explosive mixture of global competition and global shortages of essentials like fuel and food will affect us all.
Our biggest mistake would be to think of current difficulties as an aberration. We’ve been given a wake-up call: we should use this opportunity to develop a more sustainable approach to regeneration, in every sense.
Julian Dobson, editorial director, New Start Online magazine