The living standards challenge facing the Metro Mayor

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There was an event in Bristol recently to discuss a newly published report by the Resolution Foundation – “A Western Union: living standards and devolution in the West of England“. This report discusses the living standards challenge facing the soon to be elected West of England Metro Mayor. It’s a report that sets out the statistics demonstrating the gaps between pay and productivity, wages and house prices/rents and geographically between areas of South Bristol and Bath compared to the rest of the city region. It also highlights how low earners and single parents have faired the worst since the recession. It sets out very clearly what we already know, and have know for some time, that the West of England is a relatively prosperous city region. We faired pretty well during the recession and our recovery since has been rapid, but we face particular challenges some borne out of that success and some more entrenched in the very nature of our city region.

Ask anyone what the issues are for the West of England and housing will likely be pretty close to the top of their list (alongside transport). The challenge here is huge compared to other city regions, house prices are at least 10 times higher than the typical salary, there’s a lower proportion of people living in social rented accommodation and an increasing number reliant on private renting. Rents in the West of England are now 38% higher than in other city regions, making up 41% of the typical gross monthly salary, that’s an insane amount.

The other major challenge identified in the West of England is the distribution of economic success. On average household incomes are higher in our city region than they are in most others, as are employment rates, but these average figures hide a number of significant divides and inequalities demonstrating that not everyone has shared in this relative success. The rise in productivity is not being translated into increasing pay and it is the lower paid workers who have faired less well in recent years. The post-crisis pay squeeze has been felt most by low to middle earners in the West of England.

Anyway, back to the event itself. There was a panel including Conor D’Arcy from the Resolution Foundation; the Mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees; Jaya Chakrabarti of Nameless Media; and John Savage from the Chamber of Commerce. After an initial introduction to the report from Conor, the other participants then set out what they thought were the key challenges facing the new metro mayor and what the role entailed. There was relative agreement about the role itself, with some concerns expressed about the central imposition of this new metro mayor on our area, but also general acceptance that is was going to happen therefore we had to make the most of it.

The participants each covered a range of issues with Marvin setting out how he thought we should be talking about behaviours rather than structures and that the role was about collaboration, emotional intelligence and complementary sovereignty. The difficult task would be to find shared priorities given the diversity of the patch. Jaya talked about the need for civic leadership and how this could work at a city region level before going on to raise concerns about in-work poverty and how this is a key issue across our area. John reminded us about the inequalities across our divided city region and how these included the same areas as those of 10/20 years ago, leaving the same people behind decade after decade. He outlined how he thought the role of the metro mayor was an enabling one, which would undoubtedly be hindered by the leadership of some of the constituent authorities.

The discussion that followed was varied and initially picked up on the housing crisis and the problems young people were experiencing across the city region, with the need to build more affordable homes emphasised as well as the need to control rents and improve the security of private sector tenancies. There was also a debate about sovereignty, centralisation and power distribution, with most agreeing that the relationship between government and local councils was more like a parent/child relationship, with the government in control. The need for a structural and cultural rebalancing of sovereignty was stressed, with the point made that devolution seemed to be about devolution of austerity rather than power and that for city regions to succeed in addressing inequalities there needed to be more resource as well as responsibility passed down by government. It was suggested that cities also needed to be proactive, setting out how they want to solve their own problems, then they are likely to receive more support from government to enable those solutions.

One of the concerns raised was regarding the different levels of governance and areas covered and how these would work together. Clearly with North Somerset not included as part of the West of England Combined Authority or as part of the metro mayor area, this presents some challenges, given they are part of the Local Enterprise Partnership area. Other anomalies were also identified, with Bath and North East Somerset included in a different Health Partnership Area and a different Housing Market Area. Working across the area is complex and developing shared agendas a real challenge.

The Resolution Foundation report makes three main recommendations on priority areas for the new metro mayor:

  • Become Britain’s first full employment city – further progress could be made on boosting employment rates in deprived parts of the West of England and for single parents to edge close to that goal of full employment.
  • Boost pay for low and middle earners – the Metro Mayor should act as convenor to encourage productivity-raising responses to the National Living Wage as well as promoting uptake of the voluntary Living Wage.
  • Build more affordable homes – affordable housing should be front and centre of the combined efforts from local leaders, with a key role for the Metro Mayor to drive through the process of implementing the Joint Spatial Plan to deliver new homes.

These priorities, along with developing shared agendas and collaborating across the city region and with Whitehall and Westminster are what this new role is all about. Despite the perceived lack of powers and resource there is a glimmer of an opportunity that needs to be taken. The candidates are currently being announced and the election for the first Metro Mayor takes place in May this year. Given there are no other local elections this year it will certainly be interesting to see if this election will manage to grab the attention of the voters and what the turnout will be.

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West of England Devolution

cropped-cropped-rivers-of-gold51.jpgThe announcement in the Budget that the West of England had signed a devolution deal with Government came as a bit of a surprise to many. This was partially because the deals have been shrouded in so much secrecy that even many of our local politicians didn’t know what was happening and what would be included, let alone the local residents. It was also a bit of a surprise when you consider the general level of local opposition to the notion of a combined authority and a metro-mayor. This opposition has been pretty much unanimous amongst local politicians, with few supporting the idea of a city-region mayor, and most suggesting that current, informal arrangements are sufficient and that there is no need for any form of formal structure. So definitely surprising to see that all four leaders have signed up to a deal that includes arrangements for a metro-mayor and combined authority structure.

There are a number of questions that initially spring to my mind when considering this whole devolution agenda. Firstly, if we weren’t part of it would it matter? Secondly, is what’s included worth it? Thirdly, is this the right structure for our area? Lastly, what’s missing? I’ll take these questions in turn and share my thoughts.

So to begin, would it matter if we hadn’t agreed a deal and if when this deal is taken to each of the four local councils for agreement it all falls apart, do we care? Which, let’s face it, given the initial response from some quarters is quite likely. North Somerset have already made it pretty clear they don’t agree and don’t feel their area benefits enough from the deal and the MP for North East Somerset has clearly stated that he is firmly opposed to any such deal with the structure imposed by his own government. One of the important issues to consider here is where else has signed devolution deals. The government’s aim was to have all the Core Cities signed up to deals with a metro-mayor and combined authority in place. So far, Sheffield, Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, Newcastle and Cardiff have signed deals whilst negotiations are continuing in Nottingham and Leeds. So if Bristol were not to be part of this process we might well lose out in comparison to other key cities in England and Wales. By lose out I mean both competitively and in terms of perception. So it just might matter, we would lose the extra funding on offer and suffer a further loss of credibility with government, something this area has suffered from for many years.

My second question was is the deal worth it? Is there enough in this deal to make it worthwhile accepting an imposed structure that has little support locally (although to be fair there has been little real public debate about this)? The content of the deal covers transport, housing, planning, skills and business support, key issues that arguably need a more strategic approach, across local council boundaries. It brings in extra resources, around £30m a year for thirty years and extra powers to decide things locally around transport, adult education and employment support. It also opens up a more positive dialogue with government about future powers and resources, that might not be on offer otherwise. So in terms of the first two questions then I can understand why the deal has been done, we don’t want to lose out and this is the only option on offer, so we probably do need to be part of it.

The question of structure seems to be the one everyone is focused on. Is a metro-mayor right for the West of England when we already have a Bristol mayor? Is a combined authority needed? To some degree the question is pointless as Osborne made it very clear from the start of this process that devolution deals for cities would have to agree to this structure, it’s an issue that didn’t appear to be up for debate. So if we want the deal we have to accept the structure. Whatever the rights and wrongs and irony of a devolution process that imposes a structure, that is all that’s on offer. Other cities have been equally reticent about agreeing to the idea of a metro-mayor and combined authority, but in order to progress their devolution deal they have accepted it (reluctantly) as part of the process. It seems we will have to do the same.

Personally I think there are some merits in the approach and would certainly advocate the need for a combined authority. Whilst we have had an informal structure for some time, it is less than effective. At the moment, decisions made by the LEP or Strategic Leaders Board have to go back to each of the four local authorities for formal approval, a process that can take months. So a formal structure that cuts out that process has to be good for speeding up decision making. It will also have a focus on strategic issues, something much needed round here.

The issue of a metro-mayor is perhaps more controversial. How would this strategic mayor work with the Bristol mayor? Would there be overlaps of role and confusion as a result? I’m not against the idea personally as I believe that two strong leadership roles promoting our city and city region has to be a good thing and can only benefit the area in the long run, but I can understand why some might be opposed to it.

My final question was about what’s missing from the deal, what more could we have included if only the process had been a little more collaborative, open and transparent? The point about transparency came through very strongly in relation to some research I was involved in as part of a Political Studies Association Research Commission which looked at informal governance as part of the devolution process. The research found that many areas had very real concerns about the lack of openness during the process and the lack of engagement of other politicians and stakeholders was a concern that those involved thought might lead to problems later on. The issue here is about ownership, if you don’t involve people in the process they don’t have any ownership of the output. So one would expect some local politicians, as elected representatives, to have concerns about the content of deals and the process by which they have been agreed. For me it also seems a shame that the process excluded people who might just have provided some interesting and useful ideas to the content of bids.

Looking at the issues that really matter in the West of England and those that need a level of strategic thinking to provide workable solutions, then the bid covers the most obvious broad areas, although health is currently missing from the equation. However, when looking at what is contained one could ask a few questions about how limited the content is. Why haven’t we been more bold in our asks?

If I just look at the whole issue of housing, a major problem in the West of England that we have failed to address strategically for many years. The proposals in the deal are based around a fund to support infrastructure, stronger strategic planning powers and development corporations to overcome barriers to development. These seem pretty good on paper and the infrastructure fund is certainly to be welcomed, providing additional funds and also long term certainty against which borrowing can take place.

The notion of Mayoral Development Corporations is an interesting one. Bristol doesn’t exactly have fond memories of its own Development Corporation. But if these can help to unblock strategic sites to deliver housing then it’s a good call, as long as the process doesn’t trample all over local representatives and local communities as their predecessors did.

But what else could have been included to help deal with the housing crisis in our area? Is there much that local councils can actually do given the central policy we are working within? Well, yes maybe. All you have to do is look around at some of the innovative ideas being tried elsewhere to see that there are other options. How about asking government if we could suspend the right to buy on council properties across the patch or in certain areas, or even just for new build council housing? Why not, parts of Wales have? How about taxing developers for stalled sites, charging them a tax on unbuilt properties, could this have been included? What about commitments to use more public land to build affordable and social housing, releasing councils from the need to secure the best price for land? The problem with many of these devolution deals is that they have involved a small number of people in a rushed process, so has been little time for creative thinking or even the sharing of ideas. Maybe, now the deal is done, other things can be added?

I’ll end on a final note that has bugged me all throughout the process of debate about devolution in the West of England and that is the constant reference to recreating Avon. As far as I can see we are not setting up a County Structure with politicians and officers in a massive bureaucracy. What is proposed is one additional politician – the metro-mayor, and some form of supporting infrastructure around a Combined Authority. Perhaps for the purposes of debate it would be useful for our political leaders to elaborate on this and share thoughts on what that structure might look like, how many people (if any) it would employ and how much it would cost. All this talk of Avon makes people think about something very different and expensive, instead we should be thinking about a new structure that can help strategic delivery.

 

Strategic planning or resistance to growth?

The first stage of developing a new strategic plan for the future development of the Bristol city region – an Issues and Options Paper – was launched this week by the West of England local authorities, on 9th November 2015. The purpose of the plan is to provide a framework for future employment and housing delivery over the next 20 years to enable the West of England to compete with other city regions. It recognises that not enough homes have been built in our area in the recent past and that this has limited supply and pushed up house prices, creating a demand for much more affordable housing in the future.

There has been a long, complex and mostly negative approach to strategic planning in our area for many decades. This has been reflected in the attitudes of many of our local politicians towards planning properly for growth. There has been a resistance to providing new homes in the right place and in the numbers needed. The arguments have largely been about limiting new housing numbers and how we can stop new housing growth, rather than about creating communities and meeting need, or even encouraging growth. Many of these arguments have been couched in terms of a lack of necessary infrastructure to accommodate new housing growth. The four Unitary Authorities (Bristol, Bath & North East Somerset, South Gloucestershire and North Somerset) are therefore also developing a Joint Transport Study, which will feed into the new strategic plan. This is being consulted on separately.

The Issues and Options paper is the first stage in the process of drawing up the new strategic plan. it starts by setting out the scale of growth anticipated over the next 20 years, then goes on to suggest various locational options for future housing and employment sites. Whilst the document provides options on location and constantly reminds us that ‘ no decisions have been made yet’, it actually fails to provide an opportunity to debate or discuss the overall level of growth we should be aiming for. Apparently this has already been decided through ‘an independent, technical process’ using population and migration projections (the Strategic Housing Market Assessment – SHMA). There’s no debate about whether we should go for low, medium or high growth options. We are provided with a number and told this is the number of new homes needed and all we now have to do is decide where they should go. Whilst the plan will cover Bristol, Bath & North East Somerset (BANES), North Somerset and South Gloucestershire, future housing numbers assessed for BANES are not included alongside the other three authorities. This makes for a slightly unusual approach to planning for the right housing numbers across the whole of the plan area.

The document offers a vision, which talks about the aim for the West of England to be one of the “fastest growing and most prosperous sub regions” in Europe, yet the level of growth proposed is actually quite limited. The consultation is based on a proposed need of 85,000 homes between 2016-2036 across the sub region (excluding BANES), 29,100 of which are identified as needing to be affordable homes. So we have a plan that covers all 4 unitary authorities, but a housing number that is based on need in only three of those areas. According to the document the local authorities already have in place plans to provide for 56,000 new homes so this plan only needs to plan for an additional 29,000 over the 20 year period. This assumes that existing identified sites actually come to fruition as planned and deliver on the numbers and types of houses anticipated. This could be quite a stretch in terms of assumptions given previous experience particularly where it relates to affordable housing.

When it comes to assessing where the development goes, then the document focuses initially on intensification, brownfield development and small urban sites that will make up over 60% of the growth required. It then considers a range of types of locations that identify the proposed options for areas of new growth, that is, urban intensification, urban extensions, town expansion, a potential new settlement and further dispersed growth across a number of settlements. Much of the work on spatial options seems to take as its starting point some of the suggestions made previously in the Regional Spatial Strategy, which was scrapped by the previous government in 2010, before it could be approved and implemented. The new plan suggests the potential for urban extensions around Bristol; town expansion in Clevedon, Nailsea, Portishead, Keynsham, Yate and Thornbury; and a range of smaller settlements across the area identified for small scale developments. No attempt has been made to identify an option for a new settlement.

Overall

The document raises a number of quite interesting questions about the future development of the sub region. Whilst the vision talks about reducing the gap between disadvantaged and other communities, the options themselves pay little attention to these issues, with a focus on providing for the minimum levels of growth that make the least impact on the extensive greenbelt. It talks about sustainable development and creating communities, but continues to push for urban cramming and higher density development of brownfield land in our towns and cities, whilst at the same time forcing people to travel beyond the greenbelt (48% of the sub region is greenbelt) in longer, unsustainable commuting patterns. How this provides for growth that will see the West of England as one of the fastest growth sub regions in Europe, or indeed does anything to help narrow the gap between the wealthiest and those most in need, isn’t quite clear. The spatial options don’t appear to be based on supporting growth around the most disadvantaged areas of the sub region, nor is there any real detail on how the levels of affordable housing will be achieved.

Overall it is a perplexing document that seemingly fails to get to grips with the real issues. It provides for little by way of real options and choices and narrows the debate in a way that is less than helpful. Basically it lacks any vision, innovation or creativity. The types of development and approach are the same that have been talked about for decades. There’s very little that is new or interesting, especially in terms of transport, the other big issue we face in the West of England. If this is to be the start of an ongoing process, then let’s hope enough people get involved and tell our politicians and planners to come up with something more relevant, more ambitious and that recognises the benefits that can come from growth if it is planned for properly, comprehensively and imaginatively.

This post first appeared on the Bristol Wire

 

Devolution – are we missing the point?

This blogpost first appeared on Bristol 24/7 “Is Bristol falling behind with devolution?

So the West of England, we are lead to believe, has so far been missing from government conversations about the latest round of devolution, but does it matter? The business community would have us believe it is critical, whilst many of our politicians are resistant to change, but what does anyone else think? There lies the problem with the ‘debate’ to date. It has been held within the closed world of our politicians, business leaders and the LEP. It has also focused on structure rather than content. The outcry from our local political leaders has been against a centrally imposed model that involves a formally constructed combined authority, with a metro-mayor sitting at the head of the structure.

But there’s something missing from this debate. All this focus on structure is missing the point. The key question we should be considering as a city region is whether or not the offer from government is good enough. The starting point should be about what we need from a devolution deal. What powers and additional resources would help us to reduce poverty and social exclusion, what would make the most difference to our communities? What would help people and goods to move around the area better and would provide for quality, sustainable lifestyles, that both enhance conditions for growth, whilst maintaining the quality environment that makes our city-region so special? These things surely have to be the starting point for the debate?

We also need to broaden that debate out to be more inclusive. It needs to go beyond the ‘behind closed doors’ approach to one that involves the third sector, local people and communities. It strikes me as odd that such key decisions can be left to unelected, self-appointed business ‘leaders’ alongside local politicians, who have seldom, if ever, engaged with the electorate on the idea of devolution.

A recent debate I attended involving third sector organisations was both positive and refreshingly different, with energy and creativity all part of the mix. The focus was on devolution to and within cities. The rallying call was for civil society to take back control of the agenda and be ready to show the leadership required to ensure any deal is the right deal for our local communities. The positive debate was about having a shared vision, that we could all sign up to and the opportunity to do something different that will actually make a difference to the most vulnerable in our society. It wasn’t just about jobs and GDP, it was about people and their needs. It wasn’t just about creating wealth, but about helping people to move out of poverty and it wasn’t just about business needs, but also about the needs of local people and communities. That’s the type of debate we need to have about devolution and the kind of devolution deal I’d be proud to support. But is that what’s on offer?

Precisely what are the government offering local councils? The biggest deal signed off so far has been to the Greater Manchester city region. This included localized control over health spending, transport, skills, housing and planning. Cornwall’s deal, the first county to receive agreement, was less extensive but included greater control over local bus services, support to bring health and social care services together, skills and business support. The suite of services up for negotiation is quite extensive, but to claim them all requires a submission to a centrally imposed structure, otherwise the government has warned, the deals will be more limited.

So, what should be top of the list in Bristol and what would make the most difference here? Is it about supporting the most vulnerable into work and addressing key employment challenges in our local neighbourhoods? Should it be about energy and environmental issues, or supporting business and innovation, or maybe even combining the two? What about housing, how big an issue is this and should we be asking for devolved funding or improved borrowing ability to enable us to build more local, affordable homes? Would greater ability to integrate local health and social care services provide for a substantially improved service? Or is it all about transport, the focus of so much debate around here? The list goes on, but are our business leaders and politicians discussing all the options or are they solely focused on resisting the idea of a formal combined authority structure and directly elected metro-mayor that they have forgotten what the debate should be about?

Other city regions and councils across the country are putting together their bids and many are already in negotiation with government. There’s potentially a lot on offer that would make a difference locally. But the bid has to be the right bid with the right intentions otherwise it’ll have little impact where it matters.

Constraints on growth – what’s holding our cities back?

cropped-rivers-of-gold.jpgGrowing our successful cities is very much the topic of debate at the moment. With discussions about devolution, combined authorities, metro-mayors and growing the economy, cities are the centre of attention for much of our future planning and aspirations. One of the key question that emerges from this debate is whether or not cities are up to the challenge. In some areas, such as Manchester, Birmingham, and Leeds we can see the challenge being welcomed and responses to government demands met pretty quickly. In other areas, perhaps where growth is already positive and complacency the order of the day, then responses are slower, more deliberate and less positive. The recent report by IPPR and Shelter “Growing Cities” takes a look at four growing cities identified as being held back by chronic housing pressures – York, Cambridge, Oxford and Bristol. For anyone living in and around Bristol, the fact that Bristol features will come as no surprise, we’ve been struggling with how to deliver housing growth for many years. The report discusses the need for better tools and powers to enable cities to build more homes with local support – this is about better planning, not less planning as is the popular call of our current government. The report identifies four main areas where change is needed:

  • Co-operation across local authority boundaries
  • Unlocking stalled sites
  • New models of development
  • Overcoming the limits of growth: green belts

These issues have consistently been identified by research and reports as limiting housing growth, but whilst solutions have been offered few have actually been adopted, at least not ones that make any noticeable difference. So, what would addressing each of these issues mean in the Bristol area and how likely is it that things will actually change? I’ll take each issue in turn and discuss some of the points raised by the report and how they could play out in this area. Firstly, co-operation across local authority boundaries is something that has been discussed endlessly in the Bristol city region and I have blogged about before – see “the devolution debate”  a mayor for greater Bristol” and “a confusion of governance“. In particular, the idea of co-operating on housing growth seems to be something that Bristol and its neighbouring authorities have a real problem with. Bristol and South Gloucestershire as a successful economic hub have to some degree focused on how and where to deliver housing growth, and to some extent seem to be able to work together on aspects of this process. The same could not be true across Bristol’s southern border, into North Somerset, where the whole idea of housing growth seems to generate only negative comment and response. Indeed in the latest issue of North Somerset Life (the council’s own regular newsletter for residents) the council leader, Nigel Ashton, once more took the opportunity to rant about housing:

“We are waiting for the Secretary of State to make a final decision on the number of homes we will forced to allow developers to build between now and 2026. At the moment it looks like 21,000 which we think is too many. At the same time, we have tentative estimates from regional discussions which will decide how many more dwellings we will have to provide in the next planning period of another ten years, up to 2036. North Somerset’s share could be another 15,000. This is all because the Government listens to developers’ views of the need for more dwellings, not the local authority.”

An interesting take on how his own Government assesses housing need and demand! One of the critical issues about this debate is that North Somerset Council (NSC) refuse to acknowledge that they have any role in providing housing to support the needs of the city region. Their only concern is to provide sufficient housing for North Somerset residents and not the ‘overspill’ associated with Bristol. So, it is safe to say, that unless sensible housing numbers are imposed on NSC, they will do little to co-operate with Bristol on housing matters. This is a situation exacerbated by the ridiculously tight boundaries surrounding the city and the fact that most of the land for expansion is outside of the control of Bristol city council. The idea suggested in the Growing Cities report is for greater incentives for co-operation and increased penalties where that doesn’t happen. The idea of setting up a Joint Strategic Planning Authority and a Local Homes Agency to provide strategic direction and pro-active planning is a good one and something that is much needed in the Bristol city region.

The second point about stalled sites is also critical. To date, what seems to have happened with too many of the stalled sites in Bristol is that permissions have been re-negotiated and development supported at the cost of affordable housing provision. So anything that changes this current imbalance of power away from developers holding all the cards, and back to local councils who do want to kick start development, has got to be a good starting point. Changing the powers within the planning system to enable councils to unblock sites in favour of quicker development could work, but you need a willing council to begin with.

The third suggestion is about providing power to local councils to proactively drive new large scale development through the designation of New Homes Zones (NHZ). Large sites in this country take decades to develop from start to finish. One of the important aspects of this approach is the freezing of land values (plus an element of compensation) as soon as the NHZ is designated which would generate significantly increased ability to provide for new affordable homes, infrastructure and services. In Bristol, within the council boundary, there would be little opportunity to designate such a NHZ as the land is just not available, but on the outskirts in NSC or South Gloucestershire, the potential is there but would it be realised?

The final suggestion is about encouraging sensible ways to grow our cities with urban extensions close to existing city boundaries. In Bristol this is not a new idea, the much maligned Regional Spatial Strategy proposed several urban extensions to the city, particularly to the south east and south west of the city. These extensions would inevitably be in what is currently designated as green belt around the city. But just consider the alternative, we continue to build on every possible site in the city, with all the consequent problems and issues for quality of life that this brings, or we jump the green belt and provide for unsustainable settlements further away from our cities. Surely a re-assessment of our green belt is needed? The Growing Cities report suggests setting  up Green Belt Community Trusts to help strike a better balance and identify the possibility of building small, sustainable suburbs or extensions where infrastructure already exists. Another good suggestion, but it is one that requires a significant change of attitude.

The Growing Cities report is full of good suggestions and ideas, and practical solutions that could indeed make a difference. However, to make the change and deliver the homes that are needed will require a significant change of attitude, perception and willingness on the part of local politicians, planners and communities. Otherwise, we will continue to see the resistance to change, growth and development that have plagued the area for decades. That leadership and direction needs to come from the Bristol Mayor, the other council leaders,  the Local Enterprise Partnership and from local communities themselves. Sadly, evidence from some quarters on the desire for change is somewhat lacking. Perhaps it’s time for politicians and partnerships to step up to the challenge before it’s too late?

Economic Growth & Poverty – LEPs take note!

There is no guarantee that economic growth will reduce poverty – that’s the conclusion of some excellent work by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on cities, growth and poverty. I was so pleased to see this report published recently because it reflected the exact point I had been trying to make about the Strategic Economic Plan currently being developed by our Local Enterprise Partnership in the West of England.

My initial views on the West of England LEPs plan for economic growth are set out here in a comment piece for Bristol 24-7 and in an earlier blog here – they’re quite critical about the lack of any attention to inequality of opportunity and the lack of an overall inclusive vision for the city region. The main point being that the plan seeks to focus on GDP/GVA and jobs growth, through key sectors and key locations. None of which does anything directly to address the fact that key areas of the Bristol city region suffer from multiple deprivation and poverty. My contention here is that you can’t have  a plan for economic growth that ignores poverty, the plan needs to be based on that very issue and grow from there. Instead of which what we have is a plan that neatly seeks to sweep whole geographical areas and difficult issues under the carpet and pretend they don’t exist.

The answer of course according to the LEP is to create jobs and grow GDP because that solves all our problems and makes Bristol a more prosperous place. However, as the JRF report points out, productivity and output growth have little short term impact on poverty, and jobs growth will only have a positive impact on those in poverty if the sectors, type and location of jobs are targeted and focused in a way that makes them accessible to those that most need them. I see little evidence in the Strategic Economic Plan for the West of England that suggests this is either their focus or their intention.

To my knowledge, the same areas of Bristol have been in the bottom 10% of the most deprived wards in the country for some considerable time now, they include Ashley, Filwood, Hartcliffe, Lawrence Hill, Southmead and Whitchurch Park. These are all areas where we know there are problems, where unemployment is high, food and fuel poverty are real issues, educational attainment is low and there is a generally a more low skilled workforce. These are also areas that have been the focus of significant levels of regeneration funding and resource over many decades, but yet the problems persist despite these interventions, possibly because we can only ever touch the surface with short term funding or maybe because the interventions were the wrong interventions and not enough has been invested over a long enough period of time?

To my mind the Strategic Economic Plan currently being developed by the business led, unelected, unaccountable quango that is our Local Enterprise Partnership should be where these issues are addressed; where the focus of our attention is on jobs, skills, housing and infrastructure improvements to bring opportunities to the areas that really need them. The reality is that what we have in the West of England is a plan that will merely reinforce the status quo. It will provide jobs in sectors and locations less accessible to those that really need them and will invest funding and opportunities in areas where development is already happening. Why do we need to support and invest more resource in the Science Park, Avonmouth/Severnside, Bath Riverside when these areas are already being developed? Why are they more worthy of infrastructure, funding and support than South Bristol? One has to seriously question the logic that says we will support what is already happening rather than use new resource to make real change where it is most needed. Add to that the fact that the plan is somewhat reluctant to talk about housing which is surely a major cost of living issue for many. Some serious work is needed in this plan to address issues of housing supply and affordability, but once again the plan is found lacking in this respect – perhaps another issue that is just too difficult to deal with?

The danger of the LEPs current approach is we fall into the trap of tackling growth separately to poverty, rather than using growth as an opportunity to address issues of poverty. By doing this we miss the opportunity to really make a difference and we also miss the opportunity to get the most out of growth and realise the true potential of the Bristol city region. With a focus on poverty reduction the economic plan could boost economic growth, productivity, income and spending power as well as reduce the welfare burden. By not addressing poverty we reinforce existing divides and consign whole areas of our city to ongoing poverty and all because we don’t have the vision or ambition to really do something about it.

So what can we change and what needs to happen? It is probably too late to really influence the LEP plan, because let’s face it, they don’t really want to know and will maintain their inherent bias and focus on extracting money from government, to the government’s agenda rather than a local agenda based on need. The answer – an alternative plan? or a groundswell of activity to boost jobs and growth where it is needed? Or just maybe, enough of a challenge to our politicians to make them listen, to be brave enough not to just go along with the LEP and its plan, to change it? One can live in hope!