The Bristol City Office – what’s it all about?

img-4122Yesterday saw the launch of the Bristol City Office, an idea that has been six years in the making. It’s an idea that seeks to address some of the challenges faced by the public sector, with ever decreasing budgets and reducing powers. It’s about partnership and collaborative governance, bringing organisations, individuals and budgets together to tackle the issues that we have failed to tackle before, where collaboration and joint working are essential, alongside the willingness to be creative and innovative. But why will this approach work when other attempts have failed and how is this different?

I’ve been involved in partnership working in Bristol for about 20 years now, and on the surface this could be seen as just another attempt to work together. I can hear the cynical voices already, questioning why this is needed: haven’t we done this before? not another partnership? more talk and no action, what’s the point? These are all questions I asked myself when I was invited to be involved in developing the concept for this thing called the “city office”. Why would it be any different this time?

This time I think the context is a key factor in why this might just work. For starters we have a different form of governance in the city, a directly elected mayor who can lead this  with greater power and greater visibility. We also have the ‘shadow of austerity’ across the whole of the public sector and local government in particular. The council in Bristol once again faces severe cuts that mean its ability to do anything beyond deliver on statutory services is massively reduced. That’s a big restraint when you are facing big problems in the city that can’t be solved without significant time and resource. We also have a history of partnership working in the city that has delivered change, with business, public and voluntary/community sectors coming together to make things happen. Bringing these elements together, in a new partnership approach, could provide the impetus needed to make a difference. At this meeting, and the one back in July, I saw an energy and positivity in the room that is often lacking. It feels different this time!

But what is this city office, how is it going to work and what will its focus be? 

The concept of the city office is about ‘place-based leadership’ bringing key stakeholders and organisations together from across the city to develop solutions to the issue that matter most, issues that to date we have failed to adequately address. It’s also about learning, experimenting and innovating, about not being too afraid of failure and being brave enough to take risks in order to find that set of solutions that do work. The city office is unique in its aim of changing the way we do things, by working together and applying collective resources to the challenges we face, by taking a truly ‘total place’ approach to city development.

It will operate at both a strategic and tactical level, bringing organisations together on project activities that deliver in the short and medium term as well as focusing on creating a shared vision for the future. The concept of additionally is critical here, all the projects and activity of the city office need to bring with them the ability to provide something extra as a result of working together, after all, why get involved if it will only deliver what you do already? So to begin with, two project task and finish groups have been set up to tackle the issues of homelessness and providing quality work experience to young people.

As current issues go street homelessness is one of those pretty much at the top of the agenda. We’ve seen a massive and visible increase in Bristol over the last few years, from less than 10 on any one night in 2012, to around 100 now (official figures). The reasons why any individual becomes homeless and ends up on the street are varied and often very complex, with many experiencing mental health problems or issues with drug and alcohol use. Solving the problem is complex, providing the accommodation and support services for those with the most complex needs is challenging. It’s certainly an area that needs different organisations to work together differently to provide solutions. It’s not just about providing a home, but for those with the most complex needs a ‘housing first’ approach may well provide the security and support they need to tackle the reasons they became homeless in the first place. Bringing the different agencies together that are involved in providing those services, to work together on an agreed joint approach may just help to provide the right solutions. I talk more about the ‘housing first’ approach in a previous blogpost. Homelessness will be the first issue to be addressed by the city office, with a call to action issued by Golden Key.

In addition to the project activity, the Mayor introduced the idea of a ‘Single Plan for Bristol‘, a strategic level shared vision for the future of the city, in a similar vein to the OneNYC Plan. A bold idea that has the potential to really make a difference to the key challenges we face as a city. It’s where the city office can bring people and organisations together to work collaboratively to set out a long term simple but ambitious vision with measurable and achievable short and medium term targets. It should be about addressing the root causes of problems and providing sustainable solutions, and not ducking the difficult issues. It’s where we can set out how we address the ‘big’ issues, like how we eradicate inequality and poverty in our city, providing something that everyone should be able to sign up to.

There’s a long way to go on developing the city office, how it works and what it does, but so far the signs are good, positive and the potential is definitely there to influence and create change. It’ll be interesting to see how it develops.

Housing – a political priority?

DSCN0141Why is housing important? Firstly and quite obviously, it’s a human right – everyone should have the right to a decent home that is affordable. This obvious statement has been discussed before by many better than me – see “Making the case for housing” by Prof Alex Marsh and work by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on housing and poverty.

Secondly, it’s important to our economy, an undeniable fact. Just consider the size of the construction sector and of the housing sector and you begin to understand the impact and importance it has on the economy. Construction contributes 6% of UK GVA and there are 280,000 companies that make up the construction industry, providing nearly 3 million jobs (2013 figures). Obviously not all these are in housing but when construction and house building slumps; so does the economy. When house building stalls during a recession; we stay in recession.

We are currently building less than half the number of homes we were 10 years ago and many fewer than we need. The demand for homes is increasing but we are building fewer. That means more people on housing waiting lists, higher rents, more people on housing benefit, more homelessness, more people priced out of the market and more people living in overcrowded and unfit housing. Government and local councils seem either clueless or powerless to do anything to resolve these problems, other than come up with short term schemes that provide partial solutions. If housing is so important to the economy in jobs, GVA and GDP terms then why aren’t we doing more?

Housing is also important to business, for obvious selfish reasons it must be – how can we attract inward investment, new companies and new opportunities to trade if we can’t house the workforce? How can we attract the right people with the right skills if we can’t house the workforce? The cost of housing is identified by businesses in the Bristol city region as a major barrier to growth; businesses consistently say the cost of housing is stopping them from expanding and growing their business, whilst others complain about not being able to attract people with the right skills. So not having enough of the right houses, in the right place at the right price is a major barrier to business growth. The West of England has one of the highest house price to salary differentials outside of London and the South East. Bristol is ranked the 9th least affordable city to live in Britain according to a recent Centre for Cities report “Delivering Change: building homes where we need them“. Housing is important to business because it helps to attract the right people with the right skills and helps to remove barriers to growth and inward investment, but with unaffordable prices our ability to compete is reduced.

For less selfish business reasons housing is an issue for health and wellbeing because if we are not providing sufficient housing close to jobs, then we are forcing people to live further away from their work. That means more time spent travelling and less time spent with family/friends – getting the work-life balance right is harder if you spend 2-3 hours a day travelling to and from work. It also adds to traffic congestion and creates additional environmental problems. I saw a statistic the other day, can’t remember where, that said a person with a one-hour commute has to earn 40% more money to be as satisfied with life as someone who walks to the office. Stop and think about that for a minute and the impact that must have on people’s lives. 

Now’s the time, with a general election in 2015 and a Bristol mayoral & council election in 2016, to make sure housing is firmly on people’s agendas; to raise the critical issues and provide the solutions that can be implemented locally. It is easy to sit back and be critical of the inability of local and national political leaders to take strategic long term decisions. We criticise them for having to be sensitive to electoral cycles and for not tackling the difficult issues. Housing is one of those issues that needs a short, medium and long term plan, where the difficult issues need to be faced head on.

Everyone has the right to a decent home. By restricting housing growth and refusing development we are denying people that right. In a prosperous city such as Bristol it is ridiculous that we have around 14,000 people on the housing waiting list, too many people in overcrowded and poor accommodation; and others with nowhere to live at all. So the question remains – what more can we do to deliver the housing that Bristol desperately needs at a price people can afford?

We need local politicians who are brave enough to stand up for the rights of individuals, to provide the homes we need, cut through the politics of housing growth and do what is right for Bristol, the economy and the people who live and work here. And now’s the time to do it!

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!