A One City Plan for Bristol

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Mayor Marvin Rees introduced the idea of a “One City Plan” for Bristol at his inauguration speech back in May 2016.  He talked about the need for Bristol to have a big vision, looking to the future, rather than just getting caught up in immediate issues and projects. His focus was on developing a vision that addressed the big issues collaboratively, as a collective endeavour:

  • ensuring Bristol doesn’t have any areas in the top 10 of the most deprived areas in the country;
  • breaking the link between economic background and educational attainment and health inequalities; and
  • doing development in a way that reduces inequality.

So why does Bristol need such a “Plan”? What’s wrong with all the ones we’ve got? The idea of a ‘One City Plan’ as suggested by the Mayor, is that we produce a plan for the whole city, not just a land use plan or a city council plan, but a plan that brings people, institutions, business and the council together in common interest, that covers all the big issues and looks further ahead to the kind of Bristol we want in the future. So this time we have to do it differently, make it a plan people can sign up to, that all the key agencies and businesses in the city have a stake in, and that residents are involved in creating.

The Plan could be an opportunity to set out how we would like to see Bristol in the future. Thinking far enough ahead enables us to be bold and visionary as well as practical, ambitious as well as realistic. It could be where we get that real chance to address the ‘big issues’ that we shy away from in other strategies and plans, or where we finally manage to link things together well enough to generate positive change.

Many US cities have big plans and visions that seek to address poverty and inequality, taking these as the starting point for change, but looking further into the future than most of our plans do. For example, the Philadelphia Plan – Shared Prosperity Philadelphia: Our Plan to Fight Poverty 2013, or the Toronto Poverty Strategy –  TO Prosperity: Toronto Poverty Reduction Strategy  and the New York City Plan – OneNYC Plan.

Other cities, such as Chicago have a long history of visionary plans, bringing public and private sectors together to set out their vision for the future, celebrated recently in the centennial programme, 100 years after Burnham’s first Plan of Chicago (1909). The Plan was about thinking big, as Burnham aptly puts it:

“Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency.”

All of these Plans focus on collective impact, common agendas, shared measurement systems and continuous communication – all themes that are important to city development and are needed to make change happen, as the TO Prosperity Strategy points out: “why expect different results if we continue doing things the same way?” That’s exactly the point, for too long we’ve done things the same way and expected change, doing things differently may just provide the change we want. That’s how I see the potential of the One City Plan.

The idea of a strategic level shared vision for the future of the city is 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 Mayor’s 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, medium and long term objectives and targets. It needs to be about addressing the root causes of problems rather than just the symptoms, about providing sustainable solutions and not ducking the difficult issues as we so often do.

In an era where local government and other public services are being decimated by unnecessary cuts it’s ever more important to work collaboratively, to combine efforts and resources to address the challenges we face. The One City Plan could be an opportunity to do just that. I’ll be interested to see how this idea develops in Bristol.

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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!

Bristol deserves better – why do we always settle for second best?

It’s just a feeling, but how often do you think Bristol settles for second best? Do we accept something because it’s better than nothing and do we grab at things because they are on offer from Government and we don’t want to lose out? It’s a feeling that I haven’t been able to shake off for the last 20 years, ever since I stood for council in Bristol and was elected for the first time (I was a councillor in Bristol between 1994-2002). My involvement as a councillor meant chairing and being part of planning committees in Bristol and seeing the way officers and other influential people/groups in Bristol were involved in decisions that have an impact on all of us. I was involved in some good decisions and some bad ones, resisted many that I thought were wrong and both won and lost battles, but the one thing that always comes back to haunt me was the constant feeling that officers, business people and others seemed prepared to accept what was on offer even if it wasn’t very good, rather than fight for something better. I can’t remember the number of times I was told “if we push for more change and improvements they’ll walk away” or “if we don’t do it like this we won’t get the money” and frankly not much seems to have changed in the 10 or so years since I quit the council. Bristol still settles for second best!

I’ll give a couple of examples, that will no doubt wind a few people up, but there you go. I’ll also point out that this isn’t just the benefit of hindsight, many of these points were made before decisions were taken. Equally, I am sure others can come up with many more examples and not just planning ones which are most obvious, but other areas of life where we just don’t achieve what we could for Bristol? I should also add, that there are of course some excellent examples in Bristol of where things have worked well and we have many good schemes where public and private sectors have delivered something good for Bristol. This is not just meant to be about negativity, it is meant to be a question about aspiration and why we should seek to do better rather than settle for what we can get!

DSCN1078Firstly, Harbourside and the development process that left us with an urban landscape that few could hold in high regard. Yes some of the existing waterfront around Watershed/Arnolifini/Bordeaux Quay is good and yes I’ll accept that Millennium Square works, but the rest of it, developed by Crest Nicholson and others, is that really the best we could do for Bristol? I was one of those who led the revolt against the first planning application submitted by Crest for Harbourside, along with Labour colleagues Andrew May, Dave Johnson and Kelvin Blake, and the Liberal Democrat councillors on the committee we managed to get it thrown out (with a lot of public support from many in the city). But if you think what we have now is bad, you can only begin to imagine just how much worse it could have been. I remember the pressure we faced before, during and after that committee meeting, from officers, business people and other politicians and the most common argument was – it’s better than a derelict site, it’s an expensive site to develop, it’s the best we can hope for – all it seems happy to settle for second best.

After the refusal, we entered a long process of debate, discussion and negotiation with the developers representatives and planning officers about what needed to change, we wanted something at a more human scale, that related to the water better, that had ground floor uses to create lively space at all hours; we wanted houses not just apartment blocks and we wanted greenery and water throughout the development to bring it to life and make it feel welcoming. All reasonable requests and options, and actually the new architect brought in to respond to the discussion, Ted Cullinan, seemed to get it and draw up some plans that seemed to respond to much of what people wanted. These were of course amended but what was resubmitted to committee and finally approved was a whole lot better.

So how did we end up with what we have now then, you might well ask? I can only guess that in detailed permissions, the developers came back with amendments that were either approved by officers or by new committee members not involved in the original discussions, because I for one do not recognise what is there as having much at all to do with what I argued for and thought we had approved. Again, we seem to settle for a lot less than was possible and a lot less than Bristol as a city deserved. At the time the debate was complex and difficult, but a core group of us were very clear about what was needed and did everything we could to make it happen, but it seems that this just wasn’t enough as final decisions were taken somewhere to once more reduce aspirations to a base level that screams of “at least it’s better than a derelict site”! I remember George Ferguson submitting an alternative scheme for harbourside that reflected all of the points we were making and which would have created a sustainable, human scale development that reflected Bristol and its connection to the water; sadly the landowners and business interests were not as taken with that option as we were, even though we willingly gave it planning permission. So we end up with what is there now, which I am sure few of those involved can really have that much pride in, although many in the business community still talk about it as a success?

DSCN0367My second example, the Bus Rapid Transit Schemes! Yes, I know, much maligned by some and supported by others, and much debated. My view here is that once more we are settling for second best, because we don’t think we’ll ever get a tram system in Bristol, so we better accept whatever it is that we can get funding for and just hope that works. Manchester, Sheffield and Nottingham, amongst others, all have trams but apparently it’s out of reach for a prosperous, wealth, growing city like Bristol? So instead we bid for and get funding for BRT, along routes that defy logic in places and certainly are not popular with local communities and we give up on any notion of ever having a tram – really, when did we get to the point of lacking so much vision or aspiration for Bristol? When all is said and done, BRT is just a bus, a nice bus and a modern bus, but it’s a bus, some of which will run along segregated routes, some of which won’t. Will it encourage all those committed car drivers out of their cars and onto a bus, I remain to be convinced. But as we keep being told, if we don’t just go along with it, and stop questioning, we’ll lose the money! Personally I’m not overly bothered about losing money for something we don’t really want and which may not make much difference anyway – a potential waste of money that we will just replace in years to come with a tram!

But the main point to make here is that now we have an elected Mayor, apparently much in favour with Whitehall and Westminster, shouldn’t we stop settling for second best and start pushing for what we really want? Shouldn’t we be thinking long term and more strategically? What are the big changes we can really make happen – could we draw up plans for a tram system and go to government with that? could we imagine in 10-20 years time starting again on areas like Hengrove Park and Harbourside and doing it properly this time? could we imagine some proper planning for key areas of our city?

I’d like to think so, but over to you the decision makers and influencers – will you make it happen and how can we help?