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Bristol Mayor’s State of the City Address 2022 Marvin Rees's speech to Bristol about the challenges and opportunities facing the city in the year ahead

Bristol Ideas

Written by Marvin Rees

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Tonight, I’d like to talk about what it is to be Mayor of Bristol, to lead a city. I’ll talk about how we lay the foundations of change, deliver and set the challenge to continue the momentum.

But I want to start with a promise rooted in the moment in which we find ourselves.

We will do our best to support the city through this national cost of living crisis.

I don’t pretend we will be able to hold off all the hardship.

But the work we have done over the last six years to build affordable homes, extend the real Living Wage and tackle hunger has been an investment in the individual and community resilience we will need. And the work we have done over the last six months with partners to set up a network of Welcoming Spaces in communities will offer immediate support.

These Welcoming Spaces are community venues people can go to and hang out, access Wi-Fi, be warm and, if needed, access support and advice on anything from finance to emotional wellbeing, mental health, employment and skills.

I want to thank those who have come forward to host these spaces. They are among those people who just seem to keep giving their time and energy to make our city better.

They still need volunteers. If that’s you – put your contacts on the slips on your chair and hand them in at the end, or the Can Do Bristol website is also listed on the form.

I’d also like to thank the benefactor, who wants to remain anonymous.   

I can’t emphasise just how challenging the coming months will continue to be. The current cost of living crisis is mirrored by a cost of operating crisis being faced by the public and voluntary community sector organisations who are most relied on in times like these.

In City Hall our operating costs are rising. This looks like a best-case scenario of us having to find around £30 million in savings in 2023/24, around 10% of the council budget. The worst case is £62 million.

It’s important we come to a shared understanding of what Bristol is – and the circumstances in which we find ourselves.  That’s because, as a proverb says, “a problem well defined is a problem half solved”. But it’s also because a shared understanding will make it more likely that we can agree on the complexities, contradictions and assess the trade-offs we must engage with if we are going to deliver anything at all.

So: Bristol is a city of 42 square miles. We have 472,000 residents. We currently have around 17,000 people on the housing wating list, 1,000 families in temporary accommodation and the worst housing affordability ratio of all Core Cities. Our population is predicted to be 550,000 by 2050.

We have a £15 billion economy, two world class universities, thriving business sectors and the highest graduate retention rate outside of London.

This lives alongside entrenched inequalities – 70,000 people living in the 10% most deprived areas in England, including 19,000 children and 8,000 older people. We have among the lowest rates of people going to university in the country.

We must tackle all this by building homes and generating good jobs. It’s a challenge made all the more complex by the need to invest and live within the limits set by the climate and ecological emergencies.

We are a city with a history of under delivery. Bristol has been unflatteringly described as a city that succeeds despite itself. One of the more serious consequences is that we inherited a city infrastructure that is at end of life. Historically, we haven’t planned ambitiously for performance.

The UK is one of the most centralised countries in Europe. The power and finance needed to get things done is concentrated in an unimaginative, dysfunctional and distant central government bureaucracy. The funding we do get is organised around national agendas rather than local understanding, it’s short term and given out competitively rather than aligned to an evidence based strategy for national prosperity.

Our international context is equally challenging. From COP to the UN, the international organisations and forums through which we engage in global governance are yet to deliver the scale of change we need at the pace we need it. From decarbonisation, the recovery of nature, managing the growing global migration crisis and tackling political extremism.

Working with that Bristol in that context, we have found a way to get stuff done. And the city needs that to continue.

I am not saying we have been perfect or that we don’t wish some things had worked out differently. Every journey combines success with failure. But we learned as we went, made big decisions, grappled with complexity, faced the head winds and delivered.

Our approach is changing both the physical city and the nature of the city.

Temple Island is becoming an economic hub at the heart of the Temple Quarter.  We secured £95 million to unlock 10,000 homes, 22,000 jobs and regenerate Temple Meads Station. Three new entrances will help double capacity to 22 million passengers per year and restore Brunel’s station façade.

The old sorting office, “the chipped tooth in Bristol’s smile”, is being replaced by the University of Bristol’s new campus.

We have started our own housing company, Goram Homes, building 268 homes in Romney House, Lockleaze. By giving Goram responsibility for housing delivery and social homes, we can build homes at a rate never before seen in Bristol – affordable house building at is already at a 12 year high.

We’ve broken ground at Hengrove Park, and will have 1,435 new homes, 50% affordable.

We’ve got developers investing in Debenhams, Broadmead, and The Galleries with really exciting mixed use projects.

We’ve provided £1.3 million to support small businesses to bring vacant properties back into use and to reanimate our high streets.

Cotham Hill, King Street and Princess Victoria Street pedestrianisations have helped the hospitality business sector recover.

We’ve opened Addison Apartments – five, affordable homes in Sea Mills designed to meet the housing and support needs of young people with complex physical and learning disabilities. 

Bedminster Green is going up, with low carbon District Heat Network pipework going in. We’ve consulted on Western Harbour and Frome Gateway. The Western Harbour is in master planning and Frome Gateway is on its way.

Our City Leap partner has been agreed, and will deliver half a billion pounds of clean energy investment, saving around 140,000 tonnes of carbon across the city and creating a thousand jobs in the first five years.

New paths built in Stoke Park have made it more accessible. St George Park lake restoration has improved wildlife habitat and residents’ access.

Hartcliffe Way Reuse and Recycling Centre opened after 25 years.

We have continued the work to build a mass transit system that will transform the way we move around the city region. The economic and geological assessment work has been done. We are about to commit a further £15 million with our neighbours to take this work to the next stage. 

Overground and underground networks are fast, efficient, low carbon transport systems. They are essential for a modern, crowded city. Bristolians have waited long enough. 

There cannot be any U-turns, no shying away from the challenge of delivery for those who come next, be they Bristol councillors or the combined authority. 

We know what needs to happen. It’s now there for you to complete it.  

We continue to drive inclusive economic growth for the city.

Bristol is now a Living Wage City. This year 132 more employers were accredited and 1,834 workers have been uplifted on to a real Living Wage.

Around 50 jobs were created at Channel 4’s new creative hub in Finzels Reach. The Bottle Yard Studios in south Bristol will have a £13.5 million expansion – creating 135 jobs during the refurbishment with nearly 900 jobs created over the next 10 years. Film and TV productions filmed on locations across Bristol generated £21 million for our economy in 2021/22, the highest for a decade.

The Strive Internship programme coordinated dozens of paid internships for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic university students living or studying in our city region.

Stepping Up continues to win awards for excellence in diversity and mentoring.

And we have the City Office and the Bristol One City Plan, which currently has over 20 task and finish groups working on issues including:

  • Underrepresented groups in teaching,
  • Green skills, 
  • Fleet decarbonisation,
  • Domestic Abuse Housing Accreditation 
  • and Freight consolidation  
  • and The Living Rent Commission is underway.

And right now, in half term, we’re tackling holiday hunger – providing £15 vouchers for school children eligible for Free School meals.

So, let’s look in a bit more detail at some of the examples of delivery. I want to share how they actually got done or are in the process of getting done.

I will start with one of my personal favourites: the arena.

When we came to office, we inherited the components of a plan to deliver a city centre arena. It would have 10,000 seats. An operator had been identified who was planning for mid-size events. We picked up that plan and we ran with it but began to discover the numbers were unravelling.

Projected costs rose from £79 million to £95 million to £135 million and climbing. We continued to drive for delivery but were clear we would deliver an arena the city could afford.

We worked with two contractors as a result but the costs continued to spiralled.

Ultimately, we were faced with borrowing over £160 million to build an arena with a 35 year break-even financial model with all the risk held by council taxpayers.

In the meantime, we had been in talks with L&G whose plans for a mixed-use development including homes, hotel, conference centre and retail were predicted to generate three times as many jobs, three times the economic value and twice the tax revenue. We were also in talks with YTL who were offering to convert the Brabazon Hangars into a 17,000+ seater arena, on their land, at their cost and their financial risk.

I had to make a choice about what to do with Temple Island. The political wind from the council chamber, the Twitterati and commentariat supported building the arena there against the financial intelligence.

We could have proceeded with the decision based on this political noise or we could make the right decision based on that financial evidence. We made the right decision. If we had built the arena, we would have carried that debt and the new building into the lockdown. The financial and reputational consequences of that would have been considerable, to put it mildly.

Instead, we now get the homes, the hotel and the conference centre and jobs on Temple Island and the UK’s third largest and Europe’s most sustainable arena.

This demonstrates the ability to use hard power to rise about the chamber’s noise and make evidenced based decisions and use soft power to attract partners and investment.

A second example is our ageing city infrastructure. 

Bristol’s infrastructure is decaying. From the crumbling harbour wall, to a collapsing chocolate path to at least eight bridges with structural flaws, the city we have inherited is one in which so much is at end of life. I liken it to taking ownership of a car that has never been serviced and then told the cam belt urgently needed changing. In the case of the chocolate path, it snapped.   

We knew from our engineers and senior highways team, there were structural flaws but we didn’t have the money readily available. So we made the right safety decision to close it in December 2016, just months after coming into office. We then set about planning the funding, but in early 2020 it slid into the river on the very day we had closed contractor bids for the repairs.

We learned from that and set out to fund £18 million of repairs to our bridges: Redcliffe, Prince Street, Gaol Ferry, Sparke Evans, Bath Bridges, Bedminster Bridges, Langton Street, Vauxhall.  And of course recently, Avon Bridge.

These problems have been ignored for years and nothing was done because political decisions often follow public commentary and controversy at the expense of less visible underlying challenges.

For a third example let’s look at how houses are built.

We must remember that house building isn’t only significant because of social justice and health, but the kinds of homes we build and where we build them will be the among the biggest determinants of the impact our urbanisation has on climate change.

Houses get built in a different ways:  The minority are built by the council on land we own, like Hope Rise, and funded by the city. They are a minority because since the 1980s, we have only been able to use finance sourced by the rents of those who already live in the council’s housing stock. Yes – the system for council home building is that they have to be funded from the pockets of existing council tenants. 

Some homes get built by private developers on private land much like Bedminster Green. We build relationships with developers to ensure they build well, build affordable, mix tenures and protect land for employment and nature.

Some get built on council owned land, in partnership with developers like the 173 homes at Boklok’s Airport Road and 185 homes L&G’s Bonnington Walk. Both of those were slated for development for decades, but it took personal conversations at MIPIM and at City Hall to get them over the line.

Where we own the freehold of the land, like the Debenhams site, we have more influence and we use it, again to deliver against our city aims while acknowledging developer’s need for financial viability.

Some have raised concerns that we have got involved in planning. We have. We’ve been elected to shape the city and the outcomes we want cannot be left to the chances of a developer aligning with an out of date Local Plan and a quasi-judicial process. We don’t interfere with the legal Planning Authority processes, but we work to push the UN SDG’s, affordability targets, mixed tenures, modern methods of construction and active frontages.

We need to understand the importance of this. As early as 1963 the World Health Organisation said:

“after protecting world peace, urban planning is the most important challenge we face”

So, we have to be there.

What those examples show us is this:

You have to understand the processes and make the systems work.

You have to be prepared and able to take evidence-based decisions

You have to be able to build productive relationships

If you can line those three things up, you’ll be able to deliver on the promises you made the city. That is the challenge for those that come next.

And there is a risk to future delivery. 2024 will see a new kind of political leadership of and from the council. I have shared my own concerns about that model. No need to share them again here.

But there is hope. Structures of leadership, and the styles and strategy of individual Leaders are important but not definitively important. It is not positions of leadership, but acts of leadership that enable change.  

The success of the committee system will be partly judged on its ability to deliver. That will depend on its ability to work with the city rather than falling into the council chamber’s natural tendency to look inwards.

The truth is, when you first come into office, you are limited in your insights. We come into power through a system of retail politics characterised by the making of promises and offering of solutions to problems we think are important to you.

But when you walk through the door ideology meets pragmatism. You must work with everyone, including unlikely allies, to change the systems and processes you can control, and influence those you don’t, so that things get done. All the while you have to pray the economic, political and social forces over which you have no control whatsoever such as inflation, wider stability and health end up working in your favour.  

The world in which we have to operate is characterised by complexity and nuance. But our ability to lead and enable change is squeezed by simplistic and binary positioning in our politics.

Former Conservative MP Rory Stewart recently said:

the things that matter require quite complicated, thoughtful long conversations where you’re learning all the time what you got wrong, and instead of which you’ve got a culture that’s developed of people who have very strong opinions which are frequently very popular. But what we’re lacking is the time for thoughtful, nuanced conversations in which we admit we could be wrong.

That complexity means all solutions come at a price and the longer a crisis if left to fester, the greater the price for that solution.

The example of housing shows us if you want to protect land for nature you have to build at density and height; or you sprawl and lose nature; or you don’t build at all and you compound the housing crisis. You have to choose your solution but you then have to own the cost.

My time so far has also strengthened my understanding that leadership and our city are collective acts.

Political leadership must grow beyond seeing the council as merely a collection of services. We must be more than that. Our former Chief Constable Andy Marsh once said:

“World class public sector leadership is about what you influence more than what you control.”

There is a small view of politics that says Local Government is only about local services.

But working for the good of our cities today also means working for the good of the international populations who help make up our cities, which means working for the world’s common good.

As well as this, working for the good of the city requires influencing national and international trends and policies that directly affect city lives.

The finance we need to pay for homes, infrastructure and decarbonisation is not contained within our city boundaries. We have taken this challenge on as part of the leadership of 3Ci. We have identified over £330 billion of low carbon and net-zero projects across the UK’s largest cities and we are reaching out for international finance.

And this work with the world’s cities is essential. The battle against climate change will be won or lost in cities. 55% of the world now live in cities and this will be two thirds by 2070. Cities consume 80% of the world’s energy and are responsible for 75% of emissions. Chaotic and inefficient urbanisation will increase the pressure on the planet. But more efficient living at higher densities, that our cities offer, can minimise the resources each person uses, minimising the price the planet pays for hosting us in our growing numbers.  

But fundamentally we have a global responsibility as Bristol. We are increasingly sought out by fellow city leaders and city global networks, think tanks and global organisations. They see us as a city who have a meaningful contribution to make in organising and governing ourselves in the face of the political, economic, social and environmental challenges in front of us.

And as part of our ongoing international work, I am pleased to announce our newest international ambassadors agreed by our international strategy board.

They are:

  • Helen Cole – CEO and Founder of In Between Time
  • Shawn Sobers – UWE Professor and History Commission member
  • Ellis Genge – The Bristol Bears and England prop forward

They’ll use their expertise and relationships to increase Bristol’s cultural and economic presence on the world stage, as well as take part in activities within the city that build on the links of our international diaspora.

I’m going to finish with a challenge to us, to you, to me as a city.

I have talked about the responsibility of politicians to provide good quality leadership. But all I have talked about today points to that collective responsibility, and we have to make space for better quality leadership. My request is that we consider the possibility that the politics we get isn’t only down to politicians. It might actually be a distilled reflection of what we are as the electorate.

We need to make space for – and even value – politicians who tell us what we don’t want to hear. We all know what people want to hear – and some politicians court popularity by promising all wants can be met.

At this time that would sound like a political message that tells you: we can have 27 fully staffed libraries, all 24 of our children’s centres, tackle homelessness and the housing crisis without either building on new land or building higher on brownfield sites; and we will be able to make every capital project from plimsoll bridge to the Iron Bridge the priority.

This is a political message that has its heart in campaigning rather than governing: everyone gets their first choice school, a CAZ that cleans the air but doesn’t charge, and the decarbonisation of our city systems that emerges magically from the sheer force of political will, without the need to secure the £14 billion we know it will actually cost.

Shouldn’t we all want a leadership that levels with you about the trade-offs, that can afford it’s plans and has some idea of consequences. 

We are soon to balance our budget. With the deficit I referenced earlier, we are working through proposals that we previously considered as red lines – not because we want to, or because we feel comfortable, about it, but because we must.

There is no more fat to trim in local government. 

We face a financial situation where a perfect harm free future is not available to us.

If we recognise the worlds complexity where every solution has a price, where we are not in total control, and we have growing need with shrinking resource – then we will have a more balanced framework to assess and engage with political leadership.

And it’s in the engagement – not just in loudly criticising or holding to account – that we make a democracy which will build an open, tolerant and inclusive city.

I believe we have laid the physical and cultural foundations for that change, and I hope we can continue working together to take on these challenges together.

Watch Marvin rees give the 2022 state of the city address

In partnership with

Marvin Rees

Marvin Rees is the elected Mayor of Bristol. He entered the political world having graduated from Operation Black Vote and Labour Future Candidate programmes.

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