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Kersten England:
welcome home, sexy

Kersten has worked in local government for over 30 years, most recently as Chief Executive of Bradford Council and previously in the same role for the City of York. She has worked across the voluntary and community sector, education and central government. As she approaches retirement from her current role, Kersten talks to us about her transformational work in Bradford, improving the lives of everyone who lives there, and building a place to support people for years to come.

Made by Jo Barratt. Conceived by Jo Barratt and Gemma Mortensen, with Iris Andrews and Lily Piachaud.

Music is made for New Constellations by Art School Girlfriend.


[bagpipes playing]

“Welcome home sexy” is a bit like, hey, you’re all welcome, you’re all beautiful, and you all belong.

As you’re entering Bradford, as you’re coming into the interchange train station, it’s literally spray-painted on one of the walls as you are entering, that last section of track into the station. Which is nice, isn’t it? It’s like, whoever you are, wherever you come from, actually you can be coming home here. Yeah. And we think you’re beautiful. So, you know, come on in really.

The thing to know about Bradford, it is the youngest city in Europe right now. So a third of the 540,000 people who live in the Bradford District are under the age of 20. We are a place where many people from many places right across the world, 150 languages spoken, have come to make a better life for themselves and their families. And that gives us a level of, I’d say tenacity, creativity, and connectedness actually, which is, I think, some of the energy that comes with being an immigrant city.

All that gives rise to a kind of really entrepreneurial, creative, and tenacious spirit in the place. But there is also, as there is for many big post-industrial cities, a long tail of deprivation. Of kind of poor housing, poor health, a low wage, low skill economy. The levels of poverty still, frankly – I feel personally – are embarrassing in the sixth most affluent country in the world; that we have people living in the conditions that some of our families do in this place.

​I have lived in Bradford longer than I’ve lived anywhere else in my life. So I was born in Edinburgh, I am a Scott, but I’m, you know, increasingly a Yorkshire Scott. And I came down to England to go to university, over actually in Manchester, but moved across here in 1990 and I have lived right across this district ever since. And my children were born here and now my grandchildren. It is the place I now feel most rooted in in my life. And I, look, Bradford is a big, messy, complex place, but it’s also a place of brilliance and the most incredible, warm, generous individuals who do extraordinary things. You know, it’s bittersweet, there are days I despair about us making proper progress, and there’s days which are complete elation at what we’ve managed to do, somewhat incredibly.

For me, what sums it up, is if I get the bus home, or the train, which I do usually, I will more often than not have a great conversation all the way home with someone I didn’t know before. People let onto you, people reveal things about themselves. So, whilst it is a very big city – fifth biggest city outside London – it is also somehow a village in which people are quite interested in one another. Don’t get me wrong, there is isolation and there is kind of separation between different communities on occasion, but beyond all that, there are decent people who are interested in one another and share with one another.

It’s like a moment for the world and for Bradford, isn’t it? I mean, I think I’ve heard it described somewhere as the world is experiencing a series of polycrises, you know? And I think the 21st century is going to be a century of fundamental and profound transitions that if we don’t manage as well as we possibly can, is going to lead to huge amounts of turbulence, change, destitution, migration across boundaries, you know, from communities where their climates are no longer sustainable. I would predict another set of health, you know, crises through this century as well. So we’ve got a real wake up moment for us as a world really haven’t we, about how we steer through all of this. And it plays out in all our places. It plays out in Bradford, the, you know, the climate crisis is with us right now. The air quality in Bradford has given children disproportionately high levels of asthma, you know, in our inner city communities where, you know, the bulk of the cars are passing through the arterial roots into the city. Who’s paying the price of poor housing with very poor insulation when you’ve got an energy crisis and escalating energy costs. We have flooding along our three river courses, yeah. We are a city of sanctuary and we have people living here from Afghanistan, Syria, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Ukraine, and well beyond. And I think, you know, that trend will only continue and all nations will be grappling with and thinking about their responsibilities to others of other nations. As we must, you know, as we must.

A lot of my work is about thinking about, how do we sustain mutualism and reciprocity in the interest of the common good? You know, and how do you discharge those responsibilities? And are economic bases going, continuing to go through a transition through and beyond the pandemic, because of climate change and so on and so forth. All those things are happening. For a person coming into Bradford, we are seeing the impacts of the pandemic and the cost living crisis, writ large really; because we were disproportionately impacted as one of the poorer places in the UK. Very significant Black and South Asian and minority ethnic community disproportionately impacted. We have so many who’ve lost relatives or are living with relatives who have long-term health conditions as a result of the pandemic. Children who lost schooling, and therefore educational attainment. They also lost contact with their peers and all that development of interpersonal skills, quite traumatised. And now coming into a cost of living crisis where it’s heating or eating. So there’s a real, real challenge right now for us and all communities and partners are working together to be in at community level as well as collaborating across our place to ensure that we are alongside the people at the most acute end of it.

I want children to have flourishing childhoods that lead to successful adulthoods, right. And I know that’s, you know, at the grandest possible scale. For me that starts actually with being supported in a loving family setting, which – however you define that, yeah. Because what do we know? We still agree, I think, with what the Jesuit said, which was, if you show me the child at seven, I’ll show you the – they said the man, but the person. Yeah. So what happens for our children between now and their seventh birthday is absolutely critical. And it starts, of course, with that kind of secure base attachment of being recognised, loved, and also being given the freedom and the safety to grow and learn and explore. And you know, for me that is in a family, however you define it. Right. And I’m not – you know the families in Bradford are wonderfully, differently defined in different places, right, so, however you define that. And then that extends into community.

I do still fundamentally believe it takes what, I’m sorry to use truisms, but it takes a whole village to raise a child. Yeah. So where, where children are prized, supported, you know, cherished if you like, but also kind of know many people, can trust many people, do have those opportunities. We have this wonderful program called 50 Things to Do Before You’re Five, which is like splash in a puddle, go in the park, you know, go in the woods and all that kind of thing, which is really important around the kind of the psychological development of the child. And to do that, I’ve got to provide the physical infrastructure and ecosystem, you know. Which is why we’re reinvesting in pocket parks, in walking buses, in the clean air zones, in the no idling zones, in the policy we have around takeaways, right? For example, on school routes, on the kind of access to community food shops, so that you’ve got access to fresh, affordable food. To the activation of the parks – that’s what I want all children to have, so you go down the wreck, you can kick about a ball, you meet people you know… and all, all of the above.

We think about it pretty much every day because one of our jobs is to do long-term planning for the place. Yeah. And the real art here is to bring together all those strategic trends of demographic analysis, the kind of, you know, the trends in urban planning, and match it with the very human needs of the people who are children here or who are older residents here. So you know, this is a place where people feel they belong, feel recognised, feel comfortable, feel they have access to opportunity. Where they feel they are not othered, but people are interested in who they are, and that’s the basis of bringing connection and people together.

I want people to feel they can follow their dreams, can’t they? And I want it to feel like there’s a kind of compact between us of that mutualism and reciprocity, however you discharge it, whether it’s through the tax system or through volunteering or through the work you do. We were playing around with an idea the other day with a colleague; we were playing around with the idea that, could we create a world in which, if you are not actively contributing to the good of society, not just to your own wellbeing, you’re kind of freeloading really, yeah? Now some people would [intake of breath] at that, cause we’ve come, we have really moved quite a lot into a market mentality, which is, you know, you’re responsible for yourself. You need to acquire the means through which to have a good life. Right. But that’s kind of first principle. I wonder if we can start to move ourselves into a different social contract again, where actually, you know, it’s about us working together for the common wheel. And in that you will also have a great life, yeah?

I think it is quite hard to get one’s head around what local government does actually. A lot of what I do is to try and enable even the people who work in the organisation to understand what we do and be focused more effectively on our core purpose. So I think for many years, and it’s particularly after the Second World War, we got into a sort of service delivery mode, where we got money from the taxpayer, we fixed the roads, we lit the streets, we, you know, ran the swimming pools, libraries, museums – all of which we still do by the way – we’re there for, you know, children when they’re not having great start to their lives. And for all the people who, you know, need support to have choice and independence and all that. Of course we do all of that. But actually underneath it all, the abiding purpose of local government has been to do what it takes to create the best possible quality of life for the people of the place for now, but not at the expense of the future. And if you look back over the centuries, when I was Chief Exec in York, it was 800 years of governance in York. That was always about convening all of the energies of a place to enable it to be everything it could be. And we are, fundamentally, charged with that responsibility: the guardians of the place, for the people of the place, now and for the future. What is it? What is the driving ambition? What’s the passion for this place? What is it? And let’s remember, 80-90% of the staff who work in local government generally live in the place. It’s their families, their, you know, their friends, their communities. So that’s what we talk about. So can we galvanise what we do around that? And can we then seek the partnerships with the people and the communities of this place and the other agencies and institutions of this place? And work across all the boundaries, each bringing the contribution we can bring. And of course, yeah, we do still deliver lots and lots of services, but again, increasingly we are trying to do that in a way that is actually about partnership and understanding rather than a ready mix, this is what you get. Right? Um, actually is this working for all of us? And the other thing is local government is often asked to “solve” (in inverted commas), some of the most intractable problems of our time. Like, you know, childhood obesity, or chronic alcoholism and drug addiction, or homelessness, or climate change, or, or… yeah? So there aren’t ready mix solutions, so you need all the energies, talents, creativity in the room to find right ways through it.

I’m politically restricted as a Chief Exec, and I think that’s probably right. Absolutely. But the most political thing I do is defend local democracy. I think it’s an incredibly precious and important activity, and finding a comfortable way for it to sit alongside participative democracy, the participation of the many, alongside the people elected to represent them, is something we really have to keep working at. Cause too often it slides into what I find is a quite depressing critique in one or other direction, and then we get less than the sum of the parts. And I think I still believe in the end, we need to have individuals who are willing to step forward to make difficult decisions. Sometimes disruptive, sometimes it brings change also, which means allocating resources which aren’t always as many as we’d wish. We, that’s, you know, that’s a tough job to have and our councillors, that’s what they take on to do. And I think don’t always get the respect I’d like them to get for, for what I see they do.

So I will be leaving my role as Chief Executive of Bradford Council, in the summer of this year. I won’t be retiring as such because I have, I’m, you know, I’m in my early sixties. I have a lot of energy and I’m in relatively good health and I have things to contribute, but I am really thinking about the moment in my life and what the next ten years is about, and wanting to stay in great health. I’ve been a public servant for 33 years, and I’ve been a Chief Executive for 14 of those, and that’s been through a period of austerity, recession, a pandemic and a cost of living crisis. And it’s attritional, it’s exhausting. It’s been adrenaline filled, it’s been, and at times, you know, the pandemic being one – no playbook – you know, hugely stressful time for everybody who was thinking about themselves and their health and their families as well as trying to be there for others. I lost my mum last year, I have one parent remaining of, um, four, and they’re not in great health, and I have grandchildren. And there’s something about shifting your energies. I’m really keen to get that better balance into my life right now. Yeah.

It’s really difficult to walk away from something it’s been a privilege to do, and a place that you absolutely love. And I live here and my children grew up here and my friends, families, communities are right around me and it will always be at the centre of my, kind of, of what I care about actually. Right now I think I’m slightly in a state of denial. It’s a bit like the classic change curve really. And it happens I think, as I’ve experienced – even when you choose to make change, as opposed to having it imposed on you – you still have to go through the change curve. And part of that is the grief, disbelief, denial – is this really happening? Have I really done this? I have a lot to do before the summer, so I’m quite focused on getting that done. I’m really focused on the baton passing. So it’s like I’m running this race and I want to be able to give the baton over to the next person to hold this role in great shape. So that they can move away from the starting blocks, you know, as they want to. I will sob my heart out when I leave the building for the last time. It will be very strange to feel I’m not part of it. I will always, however, be connected to the district in all sorts of ways, and I’m, you know, kind of, you know, I’ll play my part in my most local community. I’m a historian by training, I think I’m gonna do some historical research in the archives that I’ve always wanted to do, you know. I will probably pop up in some community organisations or projects as well as working on some things regionally, nationally. So I’m just, I’m seeing it as making my contribution in a different way.

​So Bradford will be the UK’s city of culture in 2025. Which is an awesome thing for this place. It is a moment in which we can take our place in the world, redefine ourselves in the way that we understand ourselves, and enable others to see it. It’s a kind of opportunity to galvanise the creative and entrepreneurial spirit of the many people and communities and cultural sector right across this district, and to show that to the world, but also to bring the best of the world’s creativity to us.

So we’ve got four themes, which are probably self-explanatory given what I said about Bradford. So the first theme is ‘city of the world’. That’s what we are. We are a city of the world, and connected for centuries to many different parts of the world. The second thing is ‘everything is connected’, which is all around science, technology, engineering, arts, and maths. So, STEAM, so it’s the creativity of STEAM because one of the things we’re about is that, crossing boundaries. Yeah, of course there’s boundaries you have to keep, but so many boundaries in our lives constrain and contain. So crossing boundaries between science technology and the arts. You know, we’ve got, you know the first television sets were made in Bradford at Bear TV, which became Radio Rentals, you know. So we’ve got a long history of that crossover. The third theme is ‘Bradford coming of age’. Because in this city we have something called Born in Bradford, which is the world’s largest longitudinal study of childhood development. And the first cohort of those children will turn 18 in 2025. So we’re celebrating them coming of age, but we’re also gonna explore the whole thought that you come of age repeatedly through your life. There are moments where you learn again and you kind of like reflect and you realise how little you know. Particularly at my age, you sometimes think how little you know. And the final one, um, is called ‘Welcome Home Sexy’, which is sparked by a bit of graffiti on the way into the train station.

Jo Barratt: so hang on. So that, that spun out of the graffiti? The graffiti wasn’t reflecting something else?
Well the graffiti is there, but it reflects a spirit in the city. There is a playful, creative spirit in the district, and it felt like it was captured by that bit of graffiti.

Jo Barratt: No, but it wasn’t like, that’s not a phrase that was existing…
No, not generally, no. But it’s become more of, um, it’s almost become something people now talk about, yeah?