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Closing the UK wealth divide: Flagship policy veering off track

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Bradford (United Kingdom) (AFP) – Every 10-20 minutes a train arrives at Bradford main station. On the platform, the driver then descends and walks to the other end of the wagons before continuing the journey.

This tedious routine happens daily because Bradford – England’s sixth largest city – has no through station, forcing trains to reverse to continue along the line.

Regional leaders have long called for a solution to infrastructure gaps like this, which highlight the wealth gap between places in the north like Bradford and wealthier areas in the south.

When Prime Minister Boris Johnson won a landslide election in 2019 promising to “upgrade” places like Bradford, it looked like it was about to happen.

But two years later his government announced rail modernization plans without the planned transit station on a planned high-speed line between Manchester and nearby Leeds – disappointing locals.

Smaller improvements were approved instead.

This fueled suspicions that Johnson could not be trusted with the pledge.

“I was just really disappointed,” said Mandy Ridyard, chief financial officer of Produmax, a Bradford-based aerospace engineering company keen on better connectivity to attract workers.

“We are asking what the rest of Europe and the south (of England) are waiting for,” she told AFP.

“We’re trying to catch up. So not investing…it’s really madness because there’s such an opportunity.”

Short-change

In 2019, Johnson’s “leveling up” pledge helped his Tories win in the most deprived post-industrial parts of central and northern England, traditionally held by the main opposition Labour.

But critics say there has been little tangible progress since, with some analyzes showing the situation has worsened.

Local leaders and businesses say promises from Boris Johnson’s governments to tackle regional inequality have yet to materialize OLI SCARFF AFP

Further doubt was sown this week when Johnson sacked the minister responsible for implementing the policy, before stepping down as leader of the ruling party himself.

Mike Cartwright of the West Yorkshire Chamber of Commerce called the ‘upgrade’ a ‘wonderful slogan or slogan’ – but said there was a lack of material action.

A much-awaited government policy paper last year was a ‘missed opportunity’ and the region felt ‘lost’ so far, he said, praising the ambition but stressing the importance results.

City Council Labor leader Susan Hinchcliffe agreed, saying investment in places like Bradford was essential “if upgrading is going to mean anything”.

‘Forgot’

Bradford and surrounding towns received additional resources including “leveling funds” and were designated as an “education investment area”.

The wider West Yorkshire region also got its own directly elected mayor last year and is set to undergo further devolution.

Many are outraged that London has been granted a new multi-billion rail link as promised upgrades to the transport system there have been scrapped
Many are outraged that London has been granted a new multi-billion rail link as promised upgrades to the transport system there have been scrapped Andrew Matthews POOL/AFP

But while London in May saw the opening of a new £18.9bn ($22.7bn) intercity rail line, residents of Bradford are furious at their canceled project.

“It was kind of like we were forgotten again,” said Josie Barlow, a food bank manager who received a leveling grant to help buy the building she operates from.

She added that they were “really grateful” for the £225,000, but the city needed greater investment in infrastructure.

Bradford – once a wool-producing powerhouse – is now the fifth poorest city in the country, according to the government’s latest poverty index in 2019.

‘black misery’

In Redcar, 110 kilometers northeast of Bradford, the fund upgrade has helped renovate previously crime-ridden housing.

Clare Harrigan, director of development at Beyond Housing, which lets many low-rise properties, called the £711,000 grant a “green shoot” for upgrading.

Bradford is now the country's fifth most deprived of income and the sixth most deprived of jobs.
Bradford is now the country’s fifth most deprived of income and the sixth most deprived of jobs. OLI SCARFF AFP

“This is just one example of where it has made a difference,” she told AFP.

Sandra Cottrell, 64, who has lived in the Church Lane estate for decades, said it had become “a mess” and the wider area had been neglected by successive governments.

“We lived in misery until this all started,” she said, as workers installed insulation and laid out the grounds.

Despite the new investment and ambitious plans to turn the nearby Teesside steelworks into a hub for industries including offshore wind, Cottrell is skeptical of Johnson’s lofty aims.

“I don’t believe anything he says,” she told AFP, reflecting countless polls showing most Britons are now wary of him after the Downing Street deconfinement parties.

“I just think he’s talking a bunch of nonsense.”

Johnson will soon speak as a former prime minister. It remains to be seen whether his signature policy will last.