Inclusive growth is a global necessity, but at its heart it’s a local story. So while gathering for discussions in the world’s great capitals is necessary work, we also need to be gathering perspectives from communities with more modest global statures—places like Bradford, UK.
Accordingly, the West Yorkshire city recently hosted the Bradford Inclusive Growth Roundtable, hosted by Aspen Institute UK and the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth. The event—the first in a series of private conversations—brought together participants from business communities, non-profit organizations, community advocacy groups, and government.
“We chose Bradford as one of the locations for our roundtable discussions because of its socio-economic makeup,” says Penny Richards, CEO of Aspen UK, who chaired the conversation. “Thirty percent of the population describe themselves as Muslim, largely from Pakistani backgrounds.” Thanks to the industrial revolution and the wool trade, Bradford was one of the richest towns in Europe in the early 1900s, according to Richards, and after the breakup of the British Empire, manual workers from Pakistan came to Bradford (and the rest of Britain) to fill labour shortages in British factories and warehouses.
A century later, British businesses are facing rising inflation, staff shortages, supply chain disruptions, and an energy crisis made worse both by uncertain economic policies from a factious government and a war in Ukraine. Small businesses recorded the highest levels of pessimism since Covid-19 lockdowns in an October 2022 survey conducted by the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB).
After the Roundtable, Richards answered a few questions about what it’s like for Bradford businesses today.
FSB’s Small Business Index revealed a lot of pessimism in the UK. What was the mood at the roundtable?
Although the participants acknowledged the challenges they were facing, many people who attended the Aspen UK roundtable in Bradford were keen to celebrate what their city and region have achieved, and its future opportunities. There was a shared sentiment of resiliency and pride in potential opportunities in Bradford.
What are the main challenges that the participants are facing?
All the participants mentioned the need for a more concentrated approach to skills building, and attracting and retaining talent. Many also mentioned a lack of investment in infrastructure and employment schemes from the central government and private sectors.
Outside the primary suspects (inflation, energy costs, etc.), are there other forces creating difficulties for small business owners?
It was clear that (mis) perceptions about Bradford mean that businesses don’t invest in the area. And the same applies to staffing—potential employees don’t always choose to work in the city, preferring more prosperous neighboring areas. There was a consensus that Bradford needs to do a better job of telling its story, and make people recognize it’s a desirable place to live and work.
There was some dismay around the high cost of some government interventions, like business rates and apprenticeship levies. The latter is a charge placed on large businesses to fund apprenticeships and skills building. They thought these sums could be allocated back into the community. They also suggested giving smaller organizations the opportunity to sponsor apprenticeships and skills-training schemes.
What success stories did you hear? Where are the current bright spots?
Demographically speaking Bradford is the youngest city in the UK and in Europe, and with that comes a vibrant community of local entrepreneurs. The fintech and startup sectors are growing, fueled by engagement by this young population. Another sign of optimism is that Bradford will be the UK City of Culture in 2025—an opportunity to celebrate Bradford’s unique heritage and character.
It will take government, private-sector, and civil society to support inclusive growth in communities across the UK. What is the most important thing for each sector to tackle individually? In what way could they be working better together?
Three ways came out of the conversation. Government—attracting investment in infrastructure, education, and skills building. Private sector—skills building and prioritizing and investing in Bradford. And civil society—working with the private sector to see how to build communities that are thriving economically and in terms of their wellbeing. There are huge opportunities—and appetites—for multisector collaboration. Breaking down silos between the important work being done in different areas is key.
During the roundtable, did any unanticipated subject come up? Did you hear any surprising news?
We heard that many government schemes are not addressing future needs, especially in skill building to build the sustainable and inclusive future. For example, apprentice plumbers are not learning how to install heat pumps—a technology key to sustainable homes in the future. It was felt more multi-sector conversations are needed to share best practices and flag potential oversights.
Is there anything that seems unsolvable at the moment? What’s the most vexing problem participants are facing going forward?
A major roadblock was a lack of continuity of funding from national government for ‘levelling up’ activities, a cornerstone in the current government’s policies. It is meant to invest more in northern areas of the country, away from London and the South East of England, the wealthiest part of the country. There was also concern at the lack of investment in transport infrastructure. Another issue cited was the short funding cycles for capital improvements, making it hard to plan long-term.
Thanks to Aspen UK for talking to us about global inclusive economic growth. Please visit their site at https://www.aspenuk.org/ to learn more.