What Will Be the Long-Term Impact of the Years 2020-2023 in Bristol?
How will future generations look back on the years 2020-2023 in Bristol? What long-term impact did the Covid-19 pandemic have? Did the defeat of the mayoral system usher in new forms of democracy, greater levels of trust in politics and politicians and wider civic engagement? Did pulling down the Colston statue lead to less inequality and racism?
Taking a pessimistic view, the potential improvements that the pandemic might have ushered in – or started – did not happen, or at least have not happened yet. The fractures in society that were there before 2020 were made worse. The inability to solve long-running problems continued – in relation to social care, house prices and rents, inequality and social mobility and the future of work, among other areas. Added to these were a cost-of-living crisis, a worsening environmental emergency, where national and international action seemed more limited than ever, and a war in Ukraine which grew more frightening by the month.
Change can be slow and is often the work of decades. At times it needs to be fast, and the pandemic response – for all its faults and with lessons to be learned – showed that swift action could be taken in the face of a crisis. But the will, imagination and investment needed for wider change failed to be adopted. It is no wonder that many felt that everything had broken, and we began to hear the term polycrisis, highlighting the multiple and interconnecting crises we face.
There are lessons to learn from these three years for the Bristol of the future and for cities elsewhere. Essays in this collection address some of the challenges faced by the city and put forward new ideas. Here, I look at the pandemic and the way the city council led the response, the future of democracy and reckoning with the past.
The pandemic stay-at-home order meant deserted streets. Getting to work in Bristol, for those allowed to do so, was easy, if unnerving and sometimes frightening. In the council, there were few people in City Hall and much of the ground floor was filled with Personal Protective Equipment and food packages.
According to the UK government dashboard, Covid-19 was referred to on 929 death certificates issued in Bristol between March 2020 and the end of June 2023. How prepared was Bristol and how local was the response? Our over-centralised state meant that much of the action was driven nationally. People leading the response here often heard news at the same time as those listening to the national press conferences. Bristol’s public health system, however, was well organised, and through the City Office and the One City Boards, brought together civic, community and faith groups to work collaboratively.
I was one of thousands of people who had a family member die alone when Covid-19 restrictions were in place. It was a bleak time. However, despite all the problems and the horror, there were good things to emerge. Mutual aid was strong in places; communication was clear and geared towards reaching all communities in the city (essential in a place where 91 languages are spoken); and the vaccine team continued to be praised into 2023, especially for work with minority ethnic communities. This was the finest moment for the City Office. If it had not already existed it would have had to have been invented quickly as it was invaluable and a model for others.
Wider changes were also to be welcomed: working from home allowed more time with family and less traffic; the use of pavements and roads for cafés and restaurants, when allowed to open, provided a different feel to city centres; the air felt cleaner and there seemed to be more insects and birdsong; and some free time allowed – during the official exercise period – the chance to explore cities more. Some of these improvements did not last, however.
The pandemic has longer-term implications which may take decades to work through. The impact on the economy has been huge and has put further pressure on government finances. We may not have seen the end of cities – which was one of the fears – but we have damaged cities, with empty office blocks and further declining shopping centres. The impact on culture has continued into 2023, with venues fearing permanently reduced audience attendance. Education for young people and students was interrupted and there are fears nationally that some children have opted out of school altogether. Loneliness – a serious problem before the pandemic – is likely to have worsened. And trust in politicians and national government has declined further, especially after Partygate.
It is doubtful that the national Covid-19 inquiry will address all these issues. My proposal for a local inquiry failed to get any support but it is essential that there is learning and change, not just for the next pandemic but also to prepare cities for the other challenges they face, especially in updated resilience strategies. And national government needs to recognise the greater efficiency and effectiveness of acting locally and extend devolution further permanently, not just during future pandemics.
Dealing with the pandemic has been one battle. Bristol was also involved in a fight over its future governance: first in May 2021, with the third mayoral election, and then, a year later, with the referendum on the mayoral system. On a turnout of just over 41 per cent Marvin Rees won his second election with 59,276 votes. Sandy Hore-Ruthven for the Greens ran him close, receiving 45,663 votes, and it went to two rounds. The turnout in 2012, when independent candidate George Ferguson won, was just under 28 per cent, though in 2021 the mayoral election took place alongside other local elections, which might explain the higher percentage. In May 2021, Labour’s Dan Norris was elected the West of England Combined Authority mayor on a turnout of 36.6 per cent.
Twelve months on, Bristol voted to return the council to a committee system. A turnout of just under 29 per cent saw 38,439 favour a directly elected mayor with 56,113 preferring a committee system. Turnout was up by around five percentage points in comparison to the first referendum in 2012.
Low turnout – having fewer than a third voting in the referendum – was not good for democracy. It was a poor debate, tending to focus on the incumbent mayor, Marvin Rees. Unlike the referendum a decade earlier, there was no cross-party campaign for the mayoral system. There was little interest nationally: media coverage was limited, and national journalists who should have been better informed did not know it was taking place. Locally there was confusion: no explanatory booklet was sent to households and some people I spoke to thought that their polling cards were for a normal council election. There was only one city-wide debate. A group of academics provided neutral background information but, in the end, did people really have enough information to cast a vote? No wonder turnout was low.
The pro-committee campaign was better organised and targeted voters well, and was helped by George Ferguson, the first elected mayor, coming out in favour of abolishing the post. It did have campaigners from all parties and had momentum from the start, led by a dynamic organiser. The resurgent Green Party helped too, even though its mayoral candidate wanted the post to continue. He may have won if there had been another election. In 2023 the Greens became the largest party on Bristol City Council following a (bad-tempered) by-election for the Hotwells and Harbourside seat. Turnout there was 32.4 per cent.
The mayoral model was flawed from the start. There were no significant extra resources. There was confusion between the roles of the ceremonial mayor and the elected mayor. The introduction of a mayor for the West of England Combined Authority added to the confusion and the relationship between city and combined authority mayor was troubled. Once power was centralised, the role of councillors outside of the cabinet was limited. Being leader of the city and chief advocate meant participation in national conferences and international visits were essential, though these were sometimes criticised as not being necessary.
There were positives. It led, sometimes, to faster decision-making and both of the elected mayors put Bristol on the international map more than ever before. In the future, mayors may be seen to have delivered more than they are given credit for now. But there were many controversial decisions too: moving the proposed arena to the old Brabazon site was seen by some as decisive, by others as a betrayal of the plans for the city centre; growing investment in Bristol Beacon took place at the same time as reductions in general cultural funding; and the Bristol Energy debacle saw the council apologise for the high costs.
Were there other options that might have been explored? Attempts to review the role of the mayor through a Green Party motion went nowhere (as did a proposal from the mayor’s office to have a review – Mayor at 10). There were justified calls for a rainbow cabinet – or just red and green – when Labour lost seats on the council. And there seem to have been discussions about a leader and cabinet model , though the referendum was limited to a binary choice so only the committee system was put forward. Bristol should have had a Citizens’ Assembly on this to help people decide and promote a sustained debate and better deliberation. The result may not have been different, but the process of decision-making would have been better. Would anyone bet against another referendum in 2032?
I have worked within a committee system, a cabinet and leader and a directly elected mayor. Each has its benefits and challenges. We made progress under a committee system on Harbourside, especially with the development of At-Bristol (now We the Curious). The bid for 2008 Capital of Culture started in the last days of the committee system. Approval to bid was given, but reluctantly. After shortlisting there was better leadership, and the judges were impressed by Diane Bunyan, the council leader at that time. The cabinet and leader model that followed offered support for the bid until the council went hung. The absence of leadership then hampered the last stage with judges questioning whether the council could deliver. A mayor would have been helpful here, though a leader would have worked too.
Despite the low turnout and a poor debate in May 2022, democracy did win and plans for the new system are in development. However, although we are not at the level of Hong Kong, Turkey, Russia and many other places where democracy is under serious attack (thinking about these places made me wince over accusations of Bristol being run by a dictatorship), we urgently need democratic renewal in both Bristol and the UK, especially if we are to build a free and fair society and to reverse some of the populist trends we have encountered in recent years. Changes to city governance should just be the start. We have let democracy slip over the decades, and it may take the work of decades more to recover.
There is a long list of things to do – big and small; short-term and well into the future; some needing national change, others where local action is possible. These – taken from interviews for this essay – include:
- Rebuilding trust in institutions (though there is more trust in local than national politicians).
- Abolition of the House of Lords and the creation of an elected second chamber.
- Greater use of Citizens’ Assemblies.
- Votes at 16.
- Electoral reform.
- Greater openness and transparency.
- Local bodies that are representative.
- Greater engagement, without putting off those already engaged.
- Devolved funding with the discretion to spend locally, not taking instructions from someone in London who rarely visits.
- Ensuring scrutiny works.
- Building capacity for local decision-making for local services. In the past 15 years Bristol City Council has gone from having a budget of £650 million and 14,000 staff to £380 million and 6,000 staff (this includes teachers who were taken out of the authority, but it still shows a substantial reduction with parks and planning affected especially).
- Making sure that councillors have all the information they need to make decisions, which might mean more political support.
- Ensuring full council meetings are fora for debate and decision-making.
- Building learning about democracy and governance into school education.
- Encouraging wider reporting about civic matters, though the state of local newspapers, the lack of resources for local news sources and the row over local democracy reporters being allowed to attend mayoral press conferences shows how far we have to go.
We need better debate and deliberation, too. The rise of social media and binary referenda questions have seen increased polarisation, the loss of nuance and the loss of the idea that we can still talk to each other even when we disagree.
We will all need to navigate and discuss issues better, whether it is green growth, the car vs public transport, housing in the green belt, low-traffic neighbourhoods, pedestrianisation, tall buildings, airport expansion, the climate crisis and what we will need to do, in addition to the other challenges we face.
Renewing democracy and engaging more people are not easy tasks. For many people, interest in the local council is limited to whether the bins are emptied, and potholes fixed. Recent referenda on Brexit and the Scottish independence vote achieved large turnouts, but most other elections fail to arouse similar interest. We should never be happy with a turnout of less than 30 per cent on a subject as important as the future governance of the city, even if that was a small improvement on the referendum vote a decade before.
Work on further devolution of powers and funding now moves to the West of England Combined Authority. The 2023 trailblazer deals agreed with Greater Manchester and the West Midlands show what is possible, though in these cases are just a start. A West of England deal like the ones achieved by others becomes the next important step forward. Without it, Bristol and the West of England will fail to prosper and will not have the opportunity to become fairer and better places to live, work in and visit. And, like elsewhere, this should be just the start of maximising the potential of devolution.
There was progress on Bristol dealing with its past. Sparked by Black Lives Matter protests, the Colston statue was toppled and ended up in the docks in June 2020. The failure to deal with the statue for decades – through inaction and with initiatives often blocked in the city – and recent attempts to produce an alternative plaque to explain more about the man and his work (this should not have been hard, but it was) left a bitterness among many. That it happened how and when it did was surprising to some, and it was also surprising to some that the Colston Four were later acquitted. Though he could not condone law-breaking, the mayor was right to say there was poetic justice in the statue ending in the dock, and though he was criticised – both for failing to defend the statue as well as for taking down the alternatives put up – his response, which can be seen in the 2021 BBC documentary Statue Wars: One Summer in Bristol, is likely to be regarded as a high point in his term of office. For a time, the eyes of the world were on Bristol and city leadership delivered.
In the years just before the statue was toppled, more had been done to address the city’s past role in the trade in enslaved people and its continuing legacy. However, this did not provoke the reckoning that was needed. The Bristol Bus Boycott leaders began to be recognised more nationally and were celebrated locally with the Seven Saints of St Paul’s project, finished in 2019. September 2020 saw the formal announcement of the name change of Colston Hall to Bristol Beacon, though this had been signalled in 2017 when it was announced that its reopening after extensive refurbishment would be accompanied by a new name. There was education work led by CARGO and Project T.R.U.T.H. (Telling, Restoring, Understanding our Tapestry and History) and talk of a Bristol curriculum, among other initiatives. No one could be in any doubt about Colston following the publication (in the same month as the statue came down) of From Wulfstan to Colston: Severing the Sinews of Slavery in Bristol by Mark Steeds and Roger Ball, though other damning material had been published well before 2020 and more has emerged since.
It is likely that the toppling of Colston will be seen as one of the key moments in Bristol’s history in the decades to come. What immediately followed the statue coming down included changes to school names, the replacement of commemorative windows in Bristol Cathedral and St Mary Redcliffe Church and much soul searching. The Society of Merchant Venturers commissioned new research into their links with the trade in enslaved people. What has not yet been solved are long-running problems of racism, inequality and fairness.
In 2023 there were significant signs of progress but also a crashing reality about what still faced the city. The fact that key civic leaders – Bishop of Bristol, High Sheriff, Lord Lieutenant, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Bristol – were women, and two of these women of colour, was positive news. However, in June 2023, and based on the criteria set by Baroness Casey in her report into the Met Police, Chief Constable Sarah Crew said, ‘Avon and Somerset police is institutionally racist’. Creating a city that is fair and more equal will be the true legacy of the Colston statue coming down.
Change in Bristol can be disruptive. Often opposition to change is justified given the disastrous plans of the past. We are no different from other places, although we should be demanding more. To meet what is coming, the city will need to continue to change. It will need help – more powers, including greater ability to raise funds locally – but it will also need greater involvement in the city’s future from the people of Bristol.
I was born just at the end of the baby boomer period and have had the advantages of that group. I was a beneficiary of the belief – the understanding, even – that my generation would, at least most of us, be better off than our parents and that the generations that followed would continue to prosper. Those 30 glorious years after the Second World War of social mobility, better productivity and growing wages faltered in the 1970s and that generational promise has ended. We need that promise back. We can learn from this past. But it is what comes next that counts.
Andrew Kelly is the Creative Programmer at Bristol Ideas, having previously been its Director. He is a visiting professor at the University of the West of England and has written books on subjects ranging from film and cinema to aviation and Bristol’s rich cultural history.
This article appears in Bristol 650: Essays on the Future of Bristol, a book bringing together essays from over 30 contributors, addressing some of the challenges the city faces and sharing ideas about how we might meet them. From dealing with the past, the future of social care, culture and housing to building a city of aspiration, the book looks to promote learning about the future of Bristol and encourage new ideas to come forward.
Free copies of Bristol 650: Essays on the Future of Bristol will be available at selected Festival of the Future City events in October 2023, or you can find articles featured in the book at bristolideas.co.uk/bristol650book.