Members of Leeds Youth Fight for Jobs joined a solidarity protest with the Occupy: Westfield group outside Bradford Crown Court on Tuesday 3rd July. The group have been occupying the area in the city centre where Westfield had started laying down foundations for a new shopping centre, more commonly known as ‘the Bradford hole’, and like the derelict Odeon building on the other side of town, is seen by many in town as a symbol of the city’d economic decline. The occupiers were in court as Westfield were seeking a possession order for the site.
Occupy Westfield had been established in May, shortly after the election of five Respect councillors in the local elections, and prior to that of George Galloway as Respect MP for Bradford West. Unemployment, stands at 6% in Bradford, higher then both the regional average of 4.9% and the UK average of 3.9%, whilst youth unemployment has increased alomst 30% in the last year, now at 11.1%, again higher than the UK average of 8.3%. For a town that has seen a decline in its economy and prospects of young people, Galloway’ election victory marked a political earthquake and the Westfield occupation is but the first major repercussion on the life of the town of this.
In 2003 Stannifer became the guarantor for a retail development project on the site, who were soon bought out by Chelsfield who in turn were quickly acquired by Australian shopping centre group, Westfield. It was Westfield who, in 2007, mothballed the development claiming they could not secure enough pre-lets and anchor tenants. The latest plans, supposedly close to completion around a year ago, would see a smaller shopping centre, but there doen’t even seem to be any real progress on even this scaled back development. Whilst Westfield can find £1,743m to invest in a shopping centre in Stratford near the Olympic site, they can’t come up with the lesser amount of £345m to invest in Bradford.
In response a group of young Bradfordians occupied the site, demanding that the site be developed immediately. Initially, official society attempted to ignore them, they did gain a meeting with the new leader of Bradford council, only for the council to tell them there was nothing they can do, the original contract didn’t include any provisions for penalty clauses etc.
It is becoming increasingly clear that Westfield seem to have little immediate interest in developing the site, let alone developing the site in a manner of providing facilities that would be a real boon to Bradford. Instead they have persued the occupiers, going through eviction proceedings no doubt with the hope of silencing their campaign. After Westfield were granted a possession order, the occupiers have decided to leave the site, but are camping on the ‘Urban Garden’ which surrounds the site and have vowed to continue the campaign.
The next step must be to demand that the land is removed from the control of Westfield and developed in a socially useful way for the people of Bradford. The council could compulsory purchase the land (the council estimates this would cost £80m), but we would argue that Westfield deserves no compensation given their failure to develop the land and the associated consequences of that (a 2007 report concluded that the failure to develop the site had stifled the cities economic development). A democratic plan for the site could be drawn up by local community groups, trade unions, the occupiers and others as to how the site could be developed.
No doubt the Labour leadership of the council, who have implemented cuts budgets the last two years will say there is no money for this. But this is only because they are refusing to fight the imposition of the Con-Dem cuts, instead of organising a mass campaign to demand the funding the city needs. In the 1980s, the group of 49 councillors on Liverpool City Council refused to implement Thatcher’s cuts and their mass campaign gained the funding to build new houses, leisure centres, nurseries as well as creating council apprenticeships and new parks amongst other things. If Liverpool could do that then, why can’t Bradford do this now?
Given the support that Respect councillors have offered the occupiers, and being elected on a platform of opposing cuts and being in favour of the regeneration of the city, they could be asked to table a motion to this effect at the next full council meeting. The occupiers and other could organise a mass lobby of councillors as they enter the meeting, and they could also use the opportunity to present a petition to this effect to the council. Such a course of action would clearly show which side the councillors were on – developing thecity to imporve the prospects of workers and youth or on the side of the profit-mongering multinationals.
Over 20,000 have signed the occupiers petition in support of them, and as we marched up from the occupation site to the courts we saw people applauding us and joining the protest. It is clear on whose side the ordinary working people of Bradford are on.
Iain Dalton, Youth Fight for Jobs – Yorkshire Organiser