​“Just get on with it”: Lessons from Bradford’s tenacious leaders

Open Quest stories

Katie Denning

01 June 2018

We recently visited Bradford on an Open Quest to explore this city of reinventions. Katie Denning, a Leaders’ Quest Ambassador, shares her reflections on the experience.

Bradford is all about reinvention. In the early part of the twentieth century it was the wealthiest city in Europe, attracting people from all over the world to work in its famed textile mills. As the industry declined in the post-war period, so did Bradford’s fortunes. It became associated with social deprivation and divides.

Yet when you visit today, there’s a huge sense of energy and creativity driving regeneration. I met so many people who were just getting on with it, shaping the future of their own communities with a real sense of passion.

Take Kirsten England, the tenacious leader of Bradford City Council. She’s thinking big – despite central government cuts – but she also has a clear sense of the details. She wants to make Bradford the Shoreditch of Leeds; a cool, creative quarter of the larger neighbouring city. To make it happen she knows she needs the right infrastructure, so she’s lobbying for better transport links.

Victoria Robertshaw from Keelham Farms – recent winner of the NatWest Everywoman of the Year Award – was also very inspiring. She took over Keelham as co-owner in 2006 when her father died and was able to bring her experience from big retail (Dixons and Freeserve) to this family firm. It has proved a powerful combination. She’s reinvented the supermarket/farm-shop model and increased annual turnover from £2 million to £21 million.

Victoria thinks deeply about what her customers really want – and how they like to shop. Keelham now grows and sells fresh food to 1 million people a year. We visited one of its outlets just outside of Bradford. They spent years getting planning permission to convert an old garage. Now it’s a beautiful farm shop-style supermarket.

A sense of fairness – which feels like quite a Yorkshire value – runs through everything. Keelham pays its suppliers more than traditional supermarkets, but it also tries to make sure it offers range of goods that are priced affordably. It’s very much about being inclusive. Good food should be for everybody, not just the well-off. They also bring in local school children to learn about sustainability and where their food comes from. This service to community is at the very heart of Keellham’s and Victoria’s values.

Kirsten and Victoria have achieved great things, because they believe so strongly in their vision, really love what they do and they never give up. It got me thinking about my own passion and interest – sustainable fashion – and what I’m going to do about it.

In 2014, I visited India as part of another Leaders’ Quest programme. We met some kids who had just been rescued from a bangle-making workshop where they were working 20 hours a day, without light, in horrendous conditions. I had this epiphany: “I don’t have any idea where anything I consume comes from, or what its impact on people or planet is.”

Since then, I’ve been very interested in the connectivity between what we buy and consume in our everyday lives and the impact on the rest of the world. I’d done a lot of research into the crazy way our broken linear model works today, and am particularly fascinated by the potential of the circular economy. But I still hadn’t worked out how to put it into action.

Bradford was a turning point. There were so many elements that resonated with my own mission. The question of fairness, for example, gets to the heart of what’s wrong with the global textile and fashion industry. Is it fair that people in Bangladesh don’t get a living wage, but the shareholders and CEO of a fashion chain get vast reward, and we all get to buy cheap clothes? The pie is not fairly shared, and this is now having to be addressed through regulation and other pressures.

Since getting back from the Quest, I’ve already followed up on couple of opportunities. I recently become an advisor to a sustainable textiles NGO – The Sustainable Angle – which has the world’s largest curated collection of sustainable, innovative textiles. I’ve also become involved in a social enterprise, which will be launched this year in the UK, Conscious Consumers, that allows consumers to find products that relate to their values.

What impressed me most about Bradford was this amazing spirit of “just get on with it”.

I plan to do just that.

There are still spaces available on the next Bradford Open Quest from 3 to 6 October 2018. For more details you can read the programme overview here.