Lies, damn lies and statistics!

Cities Outlook 2014 is out, the latest report from the Centre for Cities on how our cities are doing and how they compare with one another in terms of growth. And it’s causing quite a stir in Bristol, because it has the temerity to put Bristol at bottom of the pile when it comes to private sector jobs growth! How can this be? We are constantly being told by all those with power and influence in the city that Bristol is growing; one of the best economies outside of London; a great place to be! So how can it possibly score so badly when it comes to such a critical indicator? Could it be that things are not quite as rosy as some would have us believe?

Overall the report is quite positive, the economy is back on track, the UK is experiencing more sustained growth, cities are coming out of the depths of recession and beginning to grow again. However, the general figures and overall positive messages hide a complexity of diverse problems faced by very different cities.

The private sector jobs figures are interesting in many ways, not least because Bristol is at the bottom of the worst 10 cities for the period of growth between 2010 and 2012 – not sure that has happened before. We always pride ourselves on having a strong private sector, being less reliant on public sector jobs and for weathering the storm. The figures however tell a different story – we are worse than Hull, losing a staggering 13,900 jobs over a two year period (2010-2012).

So, one might expect a bit of a response from the council and the Local Enterprise Partnership, maybe suggesting how they are responding to the issue and what plans they have to turn it around? But no, what we got was the Mayor and others very quickly questioning the accuracy of the figures, making out that things are not that bad, that Bristol is thriving and performing well. That’s all very well but burying our head in the sands and ignoring the difficult stuff seems to be becoming a bit of a habit in Bristol. Sure we can point to all the positives, as the somewhat unbalanced article in the Bristol Evening Post does, but what are we going to do about the negatives? Pretend they don’t exist and hope it will all come good – I don’t think so, in my experience that just doesn’t work.

A better response would surely be to recognise that not everything is great, that there were significant job losses in Bristol and we have some ground to make up. Then you develop a plan to do that, to address the problems that are identified, over 13,000 job losses in a 2-year period is a big issue, even if things have got better since. There are people out there in Bristol who need help and support to get back into jobs; that need welfare support whilst out of work; and who need our political and business leaders to understand their plight. Pretending everything is fine and ignoring the problem really doesn’t help or fill people with much confidence.

Complacency could once more become our biggest problem!

A Focus on South Bristol – Let’s Redraw the Economic Map of the Bristol City Region

South Bristol has many advantages – it is close to the city centre, surrounded by beautiful countryside and well located in relation to Bristol Airport. It has some lovely houses, in garden suburb layouts, with large gardens and green open spaces close by. But to many it is perceived as inaccessible, with a poor quality environment, unskilled workforce and high levels of crime and anti-social behaviour.

Look at any table of statistics for the Bristol City region – on house prices, crime, educational attainment, skills or employment levels and one thing will quickly become obvious. The central area and the northern fringe are making great strides but South Bristol is lagging behind:

  • The worst 2 areas nationally for lack of attainment amongst children/young people are in Knowle West
  • 6 areas in South Bristol are in the most deprived 100 nationally
  • More than a third of people in South Bristol live in areas which fall in the most deprived 10% nationally in terms of education, skills and training deprivation
  • Of the most deprived 20 areas in Bristol in terms of education, skills and training, 18 are in South Bristol
  • 35% of people aged 16-74 in South Bristol have no qualifications
  • Four areas in South Bristol are in the most deprived 10% nationally in terms of health deprivation and disability
  • Of the worst 10 areas in Bristol in terms of crime, eight are in South Bristol
  • 3 areas in South Bristol are in the worst 50 areas in England in terms of crime.

That’s a sad reflection on Bristol itself and all those who have been, or are, in a position to do something about it. But with vision, leadership and ambition all that can change. So why hasn’t it? We have been talking about South Bristol as an area of multiple deprivation and disadvantage for decades, but how much has actually changed? Yes there have been some improvements in recent years; new schools, the redevelopment of Symes Avenue, new housing at Lakeshore, a new community hospital, skills centre and a leisure centre. But is this the best we can do?

Just what are our aspirations for South Bristol?  From so many points of view it seems once more to be left behind. Do the Local Enterprise Partnership have plans to bring jobs, regeneration, housing and skills to the area or has it been forgotten in their plans or maybe just placed in the too difficult to handle box? Have the Mayor and Bristol City Council got plans and will they work with the local community to see what they want?

From the outside looking in, South Bristol just seems to keep missing out and will continue to lag behind other areas of the city until it features high enough in political aspirations and action.

Rather than allocate South Bristol as an Enterprise Zone or major growth area, like other areas of the city region, the Local Enterprise Partnership instead decided to focus entirely on transport links – the North Fringe to Hengrove BRT route and the South Bristol Link Road. Will this really deliver what is needed for South Bristol or is it just the tip of the iceberg?

South Bristol could be so different but what do we need to do to make it happen and whose job is it?

Is this something the local communities themselves can take control of and outline what they would like different areas of South Bristol to be like, or is it up to the Local Enterprise Partnership to remember to include it in their plans and focus funding on the area, or is it down to the Mayor?

I suspect it should be a combination of all of these but so far there is little evidence to suggest that much is actually happening?

The economic map of the Bristol City region could be redrawn to embrace South Bristol and make it the focus of everyone’s attention but will it ever happen? I’ve been waiting 20 years to see real change and all I can see at the moment is piecemeal, ad hoc, low quality developments that look like no one in authority really cares about the people or the area!

Britain – A Land of Opportunity or Despair?

As the Tory Party conference draws to a close and Party conference season ends, what will we remember about any of them in a few weeks time? Did we get memorable announcements or just the same old politics? Could we have predicted much of it? I’m left feeling slightly confused and irritated – the middle ground of politics is well and truly crowded, with all 3 main parties vying for control, trying to appeal to everyone and only minimal differences showing between them.

I was looking for Labour to be more socialist, the Tories to show their true colours and the Liberals to break away from the constraints of coalition politics and show us what they are made of. And to be fair we got some of that, Labour showed they are the only party with an interest in reducing inequalities and providing opportunity for all, but didn’t go far enough on some of the issues that really matter, such as the railways, environmental policy and the Living Wage. The Liberal Democrats were a bit of a let down, with little substance to show us what difference they would make if they were in government for longer (except ban carrier bags!). And as for the Tories, well I guess they did actually show what they are about – penalising people who are out of work and characterising them as lazy scroungers, supporting big business and sticking to Plan A on austerity because it is clearly working!

The Prime Minister talked about Britain as a Land of Opportunity but is that what we really have under the Coalition Government and is it what we would get with Labour in Government? I have my doubts, there are policies across all 3 main parties and those put forward by the Green Party that would get my support but sadly overall no single party goes far enough.

No one made real commitments to adopt a minimum wage that is a Living Wage – why is that? How are people expected to live on a minimum wage that doesn’t cover living costs?How do we achieve a decent standard of living for all if the basic concept of paying people properly for the work they do cannot be implemented and doesn’t have the backing of all the main parties?

I’m no clearer now on how we are going to tackle energy policy to ensure we have both environmentally sustainable and secure energy supply for years to come. There were Tory commitments to fracking and nuclear power, Labour promises on energy price freezes and some talk of renewables, but overall, no convincing energy policy from any of them.

Housing was a key area of policy discussion, which in itself was pleasing, but again not entirely convincing. Promises were made about building more homes and helping people to buy, but I didn’t come away with the view that politicians have actually really understood why we have a housing crisis and what is needed to solve it. The discussions were often single focused, which really doesn’t help. You can’t solve the housing problem by just talking about housing. You have to consider our Industrial Strategy, our business focus, regeneration, regional policy, infrastructure decisions etc. All will contribute to solving the problem that we are not building enough homes in the right place at the right price. The constant focus on either the development industry or the planning system is not the answer – yes these are part of the problem, but so is our regional policy and industrial strategy, so are Government decisions around infrastructure spend. Until all these matters, and more, are brought together in a proper housing strategy the crisis will only get worse.

A land of opportunity or just muddling through? 


Labour in a race to the top?

Much of the criticism of the Labour Party over the last couple of years in opposition has been centred on their lack of policy and lack of clarity on what would they do differently?

What Ed Miliband delivered at Labour Party Conference was policy, policy, policy. We had clear announcements on a a range of issues including a commitment to freeze energy price for the first 18 months of a Labour government, a programme to build 200,000 houses a year by 2020, a business rate reduction for small business, a commitment to increase the minimum wage and the bedroom tax to be repealed. The focus was very much centred around the cost of living and how Labour will make a difference with the often repeated phrase – Britain can do better than this!

Ed was unashamedly populist with his announcements but also hit some of those socialist buttons that many in the Party were calling for. A great quote from George Eaton in the New Statesman – “If Miliband is a socialist, then so are most of the electorate” summing up his view on the immediate reaction to the Labour leader’s conference speech.

However, many will not be convinced by the rhetoric, there will still be questions from within the Party about renationalising the railways, bringing energy companies back into public ownership and the introduction of a Living Wage. Others will question the level of commitment to the environment and whether or not Labour policy goes far enough – what is their view on fracking, why continue to support nuclear power, how will they create green jobs, what would they do differently?

A race to the bottom is how Ed Miliband termed the Coalition Government’s record but did he do enough to convince people that Labour can do better and would be engaged in a race to the top?

Greens to learn from UKIP!

The Green Party conference has now drawn to a close and attention has very definitely turned to the Lib Dems in Glasgow. But what did we learn about the Green Party?

Well, one thing that we learnt was they have some admiration for UKIP! Surprising? Not really when you look at why – as a minority party on the fringes of UK politics, UKIPs approach to campaigning and the successes they achieved at the last local elections are worth a detailed look to see how other less mainstream parties can learn from them, and that’s exactly what the Greens are doing.

But what of policies and direction? The two key speeches, from Natalie Bennett and Caroline Lucas, were both great examples of what the Green Party have to offer. They put themselves over as the main alternative to the three mainstream “neo-liberal” political parties. Indeed anyone listening to their speeches and attending the Green Party conference could have been forgiven for thinking they had walked into the wrong place and instead headed to a Labour Party conference back in the days when Labour were truly socialist! And much of it was refreshingly good to hear. Continue reading

The South Bristol Link – A Road to Nowhere?

The idea of a completing the Bristol ring road by providing the missing links in South & East Bristol has been around a long time. The route across South Bristol has been protected for decades but somehow to date it has never been delivered. Every time it has reared its ugly head environmental campaigners, politicians and local communities have opposed it and the final decision has never been made to implement.

And so it seems we are going round that very same loop all over again. The ring road, or the South Bristol Link as it is now called, is back on the agenda and planning applications have been submitted to Bristol and North Somerset Councils. The environmental lobby and local people are rachetting up their opposition and the LEP and business groups are pulling together their supporters ready for yet another battle. Continue reading