The following is a transcript of Marvin Rees’ State of the City address at the Mayor’s Annual Lecture and Debate: A City for All held on 6 October 2016. (photo by Jon Craig). The film of the event is embedded at the bottom of the page.
Thanks to Dave Jeal, Andrew Kelly and the organisers. Also to The University of Bristol for hosting us this evening. I thank Miles Chambers for taking on the role of Bristol’s first City Poet.
I am five months – that’s 151 days – in. Many people are asking me what it’s like. I love it, it’s a challenge. Michael Berkowitz told me “It’s like having your mouth around a fire hydrant.” A US mayor told me it takes a year to get on top of stuff to manage the volume, to manage space for family.
I came with a lot of commitments. Decisions come thick and fast, and so far I have created a cross- party Cabinet, launched the budget simulator, released hundreds of Green Capital invoices which had been subject to a Freedom of Information request, successfully negotiated Devolution Deal One, launched a councillor-led review of RPZs and frozen the cost of parking permits until 2020, stopped enforcement action being taken against Blue Badge Holders, launched a commission on the gender and race pay gaps, commissioned a review of the 2016 elections, revived plans to build a recycling centre on Hartcliffe Way, launched a review into and developed a plan for housing priority for domestic abuse survivors, invested in the Colston Hall, Bristol Old Vic and St George’s to help them secure their futures as centres of culture, established a Brexit working committee, visited Brussels and met with EU Commissioners to establish Bristol’s future relationship with the EU and approved a major infrastructure project to build a heat network across the city
It’s been busy. This is my second speech in as many weeks. When I spoke to the Labour Party conference last week I talked of the challenges facing Bristol and the shift in power and responsibility from Westminster to city government that is needed.
The challenge is this: to all intents and purposes we are a thriving city. From Brunel to Concorde, to Aardman to Banksy to our 450 parks and green spaces we are a source of knowledge, innovation and quality of life. We are an ambitious city with two world-class universities and one of the highest graduate retention rates in the country. The West of England as a whole is the UK’s most economically productive region. The total value of goods and services produced in the area, per person is the highest outside of London.
While this is all true and we have a great story to tell this is a prosperity in which too many people in the city do not share. Around 25% of our children grow up in poverty. You can walk from Henleaze to Southmead in the north of our city and the life expectancy of people born in those areas is lowered by nine years. If you are born in Hartcliffe in the south, or Lawrence Hill in the centre you’re as unlikely to go to university as those in wealthier areas are likely to do.
We are a city fractured by race and class. This challenge is not unique to Bristol. Cities all over the world are facing the problem of how to develop in a way that is both socially and environmentally just and sustainable. So this is about our determination to take control of our future.
The aspirations we set out in this speech are tied to our ability to get the powers we need to get things done. This speech is given within that context and that is the need for governance to catch up with both the trends and needs of cities in a modern post-national world.
Power must shift from London to regional cities to enable them to determine their own future. Those cities must have the power they need to make local institutions locally accountable. And we must organise local institutions to deliver local, rather than national, strategies. The introduction of local Mayors through devolution and the need to strengthen democracy by bringing power closer to the people are drivers for this shift. As part of developing a close relationship with the other Core Cities and with London we will be able to change our relationship with the government. We will be clearer on city needs, on the strong call for city powers and will develop stronger city governance.
There is also a crucial need to engage with the government’s own direction of travel to understand their priorities and deliver as cities that are key drivers of the country’s economy. We are not just asking for money but we must secure the resources we need to be able to offer ourselves up as the solution, not the problem.
The fault lines of the national political debate do not fit neatly onto the local political landscape and of course there are legitimate political differences. I am Labour for a reason but at some fundamental level, close to the coal face with limited resource, in the face of powerful national and international forces we simply hustle to get things done. I am not asking for all the powers in one go. We have to show our ability to lead a joined up city and region, we must grow into the powers.
To that end I have launched the City Office with support from our universities, the emergency services, business and trades unions, the private, public and voluntary sectors. The City Office brings together the powers which have huge footprints in the city, coming together to agree the city’s priorities, manage and deliver them. None of us can do it alone but if all of us in the room decide to take on a challenge, if we have the will, then we have the combined resources and the collective strength to deliver.
We have launched initial task and finish projects around street homelessness and providing quality work experience for all young people. Ultimately a key challenge for the City Office, for key partners and for all of our citizens is to finalise a single One Bristol plan. A plan that draws up, plots out, and builds the city we want to live, grow and work in. This must be an integrated plan that brings the city together and everyone knows their part in delivery. Not everything can be solved in four years and the plan must take us up to fifty years into the future with clear milestones and deliverables along the way. I invite the city to stand with me. Only together will we define the challenges and the opportunities that face both the city and our city partners. Tonight I will lay out the challenges.
Nobody has all the answers, resources, or levers to get us there. Tonight I issue a challenge to you all, to the whole city to find the answers with me.
Having said that, I have a mandate to set out the direction of travel. Key to that is my commitment to reduce inequality. Inequality is a moral problem for the city. It simply cannot be right that in a prosperous city we have 42 areas listed among the top 10% most deprived in England. That’s 69,000 of our residents living in the most deprived areas including 18,000 children and 11,000 older people. Tackling inequality is the aspirational thing to do because it makes economic sense. In their 2010 book The Spirit Level, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett argue that we have reached the end of what economic growth alone can do for us.
Wilkinson and Pickett point to the “pernicious effects that inequality has on societies: eroding trust, increasing anxiety and illness, [and] encouraging excessive consumption”. They show that for each of eleven different health and social problems: physical health, mental health, drug abuse, education, imprisonment, obesity, social mobility, trust and community life, violence, teenage pregnancies and child wellbeing the outcomes are significantly worse in more unequal countries.
These social features not only rob us of talent but also cost us money in terms of the services we have to provide to deal with these social ills.
If we take their argument seriously, and I do, our fundamental challenge is that while Bristol is getting wealthier inequality is increasing and the city becoming ever more unaffordable.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation recently concluded “The poorest areas of towns and cities do not always benefit from economic growth. They can remain disconnected from the prosperity experienced by residents of wealthier neighbourhoods in the same region”. This means the primary question for us is how to do economic development in a way that reduces inequality and improves affordability. Success of our city cannot be measured by growth alone.
So I set out my priorities in areas that are the foundations for tackling inequality: to build homes, to improve transport, and to give children a better start in life. We have started work on these priorities. Housing plays a key role in growth and I have actively set out to achieve growth. I have pledged to build 2000 homes a year by 2020 – including 800 affordable homes. We are not just building houses, we are building homes. And not just homes, we are building communities.
We are taking a definite approach to ‘reversing this specific tanker’ and tackling the clear crisis on housing in Bristol. The crisis is reversible but only with immediate and decisive actions. We have stopped land being sold off, bringing back resources to the city. Twenty homes that were for sale are now housing homeless families. More are being repaired and readied for the same purpose. Sites that were up for sale are now taken back and 1700 new homes will be built on them. On one of those sites, we will do what was considered unthinkable and build 60 council owned homes. I am grateful that our housing associations are joining with us and committing even more investment than before. We will encourage community based and cooperative housing projects across the city. We are creating our own housing delivery company to bring forward development of council land.
Affordable housing is also an element in the tough challenge to ensure gentrification does not inexorably change the look and feel of our city and reduce its diversity. There are no easy solutions to this challenge but developing brownfield sites for affordable homes is an important step. I have also announced a commission to tackle the adverse impact of gentrification. Stable homes and communities are essential for our children to get off to a better start in life.
Mental health is a priority commitment. I recently met with young people from the mentality project hosted by Off the Record. I asked them what the single most important intervention we could make was. They said “Mental health intervention at primary age”. We have mapped out all the mental health work carried out in the city and I will ask the Health and Wellbeing board, the Learning City partnership and all Bristol primary schools to work with me to invest in the mental health, wellbeing and resilience of our children.
And our teachers are reporting increasing numbers of young people turning up to school hungry, unable to concentrate and learn. I want to work with the city to ensure every child has access to a breakfast club to ensure they get off to a good start. Again we are mapping schools that do and don’t provide clubs and I will ask all schools what they need to make that provision. We have written to parents to maximise registration for the pupil premium that will go some way to providing the costs. And we have committed to protecting children’s centres in difficult financial times.
Building communities where good housing, education and medical intervention is effective builds happy cities and secure families translating to a healthy workforce and less public intervention. For many of our less wealthy citizens, many of our working people, their fortunes are essentially linked to the local labour market.
Linking people to jobs, to wealth and to urban economic growth means connectivity is crucial. Transport in Bristol is a challenge and we are yet to find the solution. Our buses, our taxis and all of our road users struggle with congestion. And our transport network has frighteningly low resilience. Congestion impacts on air quality, on work-life balance, on productivity, and yes, on inclusive growth. All of our road users should want and demand a better experience – indeed, most demand it loudly and we hear it.
There is no simple solution as an American city planner once said “Solving congestion by adding lanes to roads is like tackling obesity by loosening your belt.” But we need a fresh look at our congestion and I am announcing tonight that we will launch a task group to look at solutions to our city’s congestion and transport flow. We must be determined to link our physical city to our city economy. We must connect people to people and people to opportunities.
I want to work with our transport partners to improve air quality in the city and to ensure transport develops in a sustainable way. And I announce tonight I aim to deliver Bristol a whole clean energy fleet of buses. Initially I want to collaborate on this aspiration with our bus providers and I know First Group share that interest.
I have the same aim for taxi drivers. What must be done is recognise how we haven’t always helped these local entrepreneurs go for clean energy without doing them financial harm. A successful city needs an effective transport system that helps towards our carbon targets and drives our economy.
Turning to the structure of our local economy, we should be proud of our growing high-tech industry and embrace our creative sectors. But we must be intentional about structuring our economy to ensure there is opportunity for all. Simply put, if we don’t acknowledge that there also has to be emphasis on employment sectors that can deliver sustainable, decent jobs that benefit households in our poorer areas and improve the quality and sustainability of lower skilled work then we will start to fail on our promise to reduce inequality. We will build people out of the local economy and we will promote greater disconnectedness in an already fractured city.
Along with sustainable development, structuring Bristol’s economy to work for all is a challenge that will go to the very heart of the local Bristol Plan. We need a new kind of investment in Bristol that’s connected to social outcomes and not just returning dividends to shareholders.
Today, I am announcing the launch of a strategic partnership with the not-for-profit community interest company Bristol and Bath Regional Capital. As part of our economic development activity, we have co-created BBRC alongside our universities, business and community groups to channel ethically motivated investment into community led projects. In its first year BBRC has already delivered £1m of investment into sports in south Bristol. We will now build on this success by working with BBRC to retain and attract investment at scale into our housing, employment and other city priorities. As part of its future role, we see BBRC as a mechanism to mobilise local money for local priorities. We will also work with BBRC as part of the City Office to identify and access the right type of investment to fund the 50 year ambitions identified in our Bristol Plan.
In looking at inequality we must also look at the issue of leadership. By bringing a greater diversity of thought into the city’s leadership we will, by definition, unlock new ways of thinking about the old intractable challenges. We have started this with our Cabinet, and with a talent development scheme we want to roll this out across the city. We will ask our partners to work with us to be intentional about developing the kind of leadership the city needs.
We must also get hold of planning as a key tool for the city. Last week I came to work at City Hall and was met outside by a demonstration against bio-diesel powered generators. This came as a surprise because only a few months ago I was campaigning against them myself in my own election. I went inside the building and asked for an update. I found we were recommending them to the planning committee. I asked on what basis? And was told “It’s policy”. “Whose policy?” I asked, “it’s not mine… and I’m the Mayor”. That was one of my first real entries into the weird and wonderful world of planning policy. There are local and national policies to consider but my first port of call is to overhaul the local policies. While this sounds like red tape it’s become clear to me this is how you start to draw your own picture of the city.
By the way I want Bristol’s skyline to grow. Years of low level buildings and a reluctance to build up in an already congested city is a policy I am keen to change. Tall buildings built in the right way in the right places and for the right reasons communicate ambition and energy. And of course we must deliver on the Arena. This presents challenges and we intend to deliver by 2019 and be clear in any project numbers can try to grow but we will complete the Arena cost effectively.
A few weeks after I was elected the country decided to leave the EU. Post Brexit, we need to be proactive and clear about our international strategy about taking on the challenge and finding where new opportunities lie. We need to think about the older relationships which are nice but don’t produce future economic benefit.
We are taking this approach to our Core City partners to see how we as a collective can work together to present ourselves on the international stage irrespective of whether central government is successful in taking steps or sending out the mood music that we are open for business. We are an international city in a world facing the largest migration crisis since the Second World War so I want to make explicit mention of my determination to keep and honour the City of Sanctuary. Brexit has had a real impact on our city. One of those impacts is the increase in hate crime and hostility to perceived outsiders.
In the lead-up to this event tonight, I received a question from Catarina, aged 9. She simply asked “I am an EU migrant and a Bristol resident. What will happen to me and my mum and how will you protect us?” I say to you, Catarina and others with similar concerns, you are welcome in Bristol and we will take seriously and act against any incidents of hate crime. Many people in Bristol have come here as a result of economic migration and they have come to work, to earn, and to contribute to Bristol’s economy and must be respected. I am keen for myself and other politicians to meet with the EU and other international community groups to further understand your concerns.
One of the unusual impacts on Brexit could be that it works against city interests. The whole Brexit argument was built on empowering national government and was silent on city government. Cities need open borders in a post national world. And yet Brexit sets national government as another hoop to jump through. In that sense ironically Brexit does not liberate, it centralises power moving sovereignty away from people. I have written to David Davies and with the Core Cities we will shape Brexit to minimise harm and we will take that message to government.
We are rightly proud of our cultural offer in the city. Our cultural impact exceeds our expenditure and Bristol has a reputation that brings people to the city. Our initial commitment to launch a bid to become European Capital of Culture has been undermined by the Brexit vote. Nevertheless, we will continue to prioritise and build on Bristol’s cultural richness, but this must be an offer that is inclusive of the whole city. One that doesn’t only celebrate the city centre.
In sport Bristol has punched below its weight. I am determined to increase activity, participation, and access to elite sport in the city. And I can share tonight we are in discussions to bring power- boat racing back to the docks.
I have focussed tonight on the state of the city not the state of the city council but I need to share with you we have inherited huge financial pressures. The budget for the city council is challenging and we are facing decisions now to make in year savings of around £33 million and are facing a budget gap of at least £90 million by March 2022. Inevitably the decisions we have to make to set a legal budget will of course be painful for the city and our partners but we have a financial envelope imposed by central government.
However, and it must be said, I am not happy with how we got here.
So I have launched an independent review, to be carried out by Dr Steve Bundred of the Local Government Association to identify how we got to where we are and to learn the lessons ensuring a resilient process for the future and putting in place best financial practices.
We will launch the annual budget consultation to all citizens next week and we want your views on spending priorities.
In summary city government is the coming power. It will only be truly effective if central government allows us the financial and legislative resources to deliver for Bristol and contribute to national solutions.
Bristol is a great but complex city. I have lived with and worked alongside the best and worst of it. It was a place where as a young black teenager I couldn’t get a job in Broadmead but it’s also the city that’s elected me Mayor. I relish that complexity and we should neither fear nor hide from it.
If we want to enjoy our beauty, to be inspired by our innovation, to engage in our prosperity and to celebrate our culture then we have a price to pay, a responsibility to actively deliver our inclusivity.
All of us, the whole city has a duty to lead a city for all.