By Zahir Irani
Visiting NASA at Cape Canaveral in 1962, John F Kennedy spotted a janitor carrying a broom. He walked up and asked the man what he was doing. “Mr President,” came the reply. “I’m helping put a man on the moon.” The apocryphal tale is one of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s favourite stories. He said: “Purpose is that sense that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, that we are needed, that we have something better ahead to work for.”
That’s a message I want to get across as Chairman of the Bradford Economic Recovery Board, a new group bringing together organisations representing the public, private and cultural sectors in our district. We want everyone in Bradford to understand how they can support the recovery, whether they are learning skills as students, paying taxes as employees, creating jobs as entrepreneurs or providing vital public services that we all depend on. Everyone has a part to play.
First, a few words on my background. I was born and raised in Bolton. My mother was a nurse at the Royal Infirmary and my father a pattern maker at a foundry. After starting out as a graduate engineer in an old mill in the town, I entered academia and have enjoyed a career combining wide-ranging research interests, consulting work for industry and overseas governments and senior management roles including head of an award-winning business school.
During the coalition Government, I was seconded to the Cabinet Office and served as a senior policy advisor. It gave me invaluable insights into the working of the government machine that we know as Whitehall. I intend to put all these experiences to good use in my new role and to serve Bradford and its people.
I have spent most of my working life in London but returned to the North in 2016 to become founding dean at the University of Bradford’s faculty of management, law and social sciences. Last year, I was appointed Pro-Vice Chancellor with responsibility for academic, innovation and quality.
The university is a vital institution for our city and helps thousands of young people to raise their aspirations and follow their dreams, creating social and economic value for the district. I am part of a great team led by Vice-Chancellor Professor Shirley Congdon and we are proud to be The Times and Sunday Times University of the Year for Social Inclusion. Something that unites us all.
The initial task at hand for the recovery board will be to stress-test the district’s economic strategy in light of the pandemic. We will develop a plan by the end of this year that will help businesses grow, retrain unemployed people and attract investment in infrastructure. The Covid crisis has hit Bradford hard and many businesses are suffering as a result, which is difficult for our district but other companies will sense growth potential and look for help and support. We will do everything possible to work with businesses and help them grow and create regional employment opportunities.
The £1.8bn devolution deal for West Yorkshire is a big opportunity for Bradford and will give our region more control over spending decisions on transport, housing, job creation, flood defences and other areas that affect our economy. We are working with the West Yorkshire Combined Authority on its wider economic strategy to deliver high levels of prosperity, jobs and quality of life for everyone in the region.
The big shifts we are seeing in the structure of our economy will spur the development of new products and services. I am certain the rise in unemployment will trigger a rise in self-employment. As a location for new businesses, we have many advantages. Startups in Bradford enjoy lower office costs and faster download speeds than their counterparts in London, according to Startups Geek, the online magazine for creative industries and freelancers, and they have better survival rates. Who knows what new ideas will develop and companies form from this post-Covid world?
No-one is underestimating the scale of the challenge we face as a district. That’s why we want everyone in the district to understand how they can support the recovery, from our primary schools to our plcs. The story of the janitor and JFK has endured because it perfectly encapsulates the unity of purpose essential in humankind’s most successful endeavours. You have to shoot for the moon. • Professor Zahir Irani is Chairman of the Bradford Economic Recovery Board and Pro-Vice Chancellor at the University of Bradford. He Tweets at: @ZahirIrani1