National Conversation Bradford

Our first official National Conversation station stop was Bradford, the UK’s 5th largest city. Here we did what we will be doing everywhere we visit: holding a citizens’ panel with a representative sample of the local population, and a meeting for local stakeholders from business groups, the council and community organisations.

Our citizens’ panel were proud of their diverse city. Eid celebrations were now part of the city’s shared heritage and enjoyed by all communities. “We’ve got Christmas lights, Eid lights and Diwali lights and lots and lots of food.” There was a strong civic pride in Bradford, a city that has given us J. B. Priestley, David Hockney and Zayn Malik. Bradford’s inclusive identity and civic pride seems to have the effect of bridging divides and bringing communities together.

Bradford is an ethnically diverse city with a long history of immigration: from Irish, Polish and South Asian migrants, as well as German and eastern European Jews after the Second World War; and, more recently, a third wave of migration from eastern Europe. The city is home to about 800 asylum-seekers and nearly 2,000 overseas students who have come to study at Bradford University.

Migration has been part of Bradford’s DNA for over two centuries. Over the years, most of those have moved to the city have found a job, made new friends brought up their families. While the city has accommodated these new arrivals, it has also faced some of the challenges of integration experienced by other northern towns and cities. The pressures and gains of migration were reflected in what we were told on our visit.

Members of our citizens’ panel were generally happy with migrants who have come to work. “I’ve no problem with people coming here and working hard, contributing and paying taxes,” one participant told us. The majority were happy for the numbers of highly-skilled migrants to be increased, and for levels of low-skilled migration to remain about the same. There were also mixed views about refugees. While everyone supported the principle of refugee protection, there were views that asylum-seekers were being drawn to the UK by benefits.  This raises an important policy question: should asylum-seekers be allowed to work? Current policy bars them from doing this, although some refugee organisations have campaigned to change it. We will be testing this proposition in our online survey and through polling, and we will report our findings to the Home Affairs Committee.

Our visit to Bradford also shifted our image of the city. Before we came here, we had an image of a city that was not integrated, rather being divided along ethnic lines.  The availability of housing in the 1950s and 1960s led to Pakistani migrants settling in particular areas of the city, with subsequent reports suggesting that the white British population and Pakistani-heritage populations leading “parallel lives”. Certainly, much residential segregation remains, although there are mixed neighbourhoods. But both our stakeholders and citizens’ panels argued that integration was not just about where you lived, but also who you met at work or at school and college. “There are two Polish lads where I work, I’d call them friends, they socialise outside work,” we were gently corrected.

This first visit has raised many issues and changed some of our views on integration. Our next stop is a small town in the East Anglian Fens. Let’s see what our panels tell us there.