Tiger by the Tail

Yesterday afternoon my cabinet endorsed a report to cover an increased spend for the MetroBus Scheme. I have to admit this is frustrating and disappointing at a time council facing such a challenging financial settlement from central government.

We inherited the MetroBus Scheme and overspend, as well as the disruption. Nevertheless, we’ve now got to continue and see this through.

I described the situation as metaphor my wife’s grandfather in law used: “you’ve got the ‘Tiger by the tail. You don’t want to let go of the Tiger because it will bite you, but you wouldn’t want to have hold of its tail in the first place.”

Having spent the sum to date, we need to finalise the scheme despite these difficulties and make it work.

At Cabinet I was frustrated by some comments which suggested that this came at the expense of affordable homes. It is important elected members are explaining how Council budgets work and don’t create false equivalencies.

Because of the way the project is funded by Central Government, you cannot simply take money off of MetroBus and use it for affordable homes. Money has been granted by the Department for Transport specifically for it. Failing to deliver would not only put the cash in jeopardy, but would have a reputational impact for our city that would prevent our ability to get more government money in the future, including money to enable affordable housing.

What’s far more important is that we need to look at transport with a more ambitious eye. We are working on a number of big ideas for transport as well as the urgent need to upgrade Bristol Temple Meads as the gateway for the city. There are a number of other ways to achieve these aims working with the Community Infrastructure Levy, private investment and central government finances.

 

Charlottesville

What is happening in Charlottesville is frightening. It is not new. It is not even surprising. This brand of violent white supremacy simmers away beneath the surface of US society.

When I interned in Washington DC in the late 90s, I worked under a black Baptist Minister from Atlanta who was a veteran of the civil rights movement and grew up with the King family. He pointed me toward the speech Martin Luther King gave on 4th April 1967, a year to the day before he was killed. It was this speech , he said, that signed King’s death warrant. In the speech King warned:

I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

We are living this out today. The added dynamic is that the supremacist’s sentiments being demonstrated have been emboldened by the President that has courted fire on questions of what it means to be American, race and belonging, state violence and immigration.

It brings another issue to the fore for me and that is that elections matter. For all those who are disillusioned with electoral politics we are witnessing what happens when we enable the wrong people to take control. They set a tone that has real world implications.

An African American friend of mine once said to me “we don’t vote democrat because they’ll do anything for us, but we know they won’t do anything to us”. At the time I thought that was visionless and cynical. Today I find it more astute. Sometimes the job of politics is to do your limited best to hold back bad things. That is not glamorous, but it’s an approach born of lived experience of political marginalisation.

Let me say finally that this is an American problem, but it is also an international problem. The US sets a tone for the world. Marginalised people are internationally connected. “A threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”, as Dr King once wrote. It’s critical that cities around the world support those US cities stepping up to lead where their national government has let them, and the world, down.

Shipshape and Bristol Fashion

This morning I was lucky enough to get some work experience with the Harbour Master.  I got to see first-hand what the Harbour Master’s important role involves and some of the challenges it presents, such as keeping the docks working whilst supporting the harbour community. Bristol City Council is a unique position because unlike a lot of other councils, we actually manage our harbour ourselves. The harbour team do a lot of work ensuring we have a safe and vibrant harbour we can enjoy, while also protecting the city from flooding.

After embarking the Harbour Master boat ‘Mariner’ I was shown underneath Plimsoll Bridge to look at the challenges our aging infrastructure presents.   A lot of the city’s bridges were built over 100 years ago, which means repairs are more complex, time consuming and often costly too.  Prince St Bridge was a recent example of how difficult repairs can be on these older structures.

It’s these historic sites which make our city unique and therefore why we must protect and maintain them.

On my way back to the office I bumped into members of the Bristol Merchant Navy Association, who invited me into their coffee morning. They kindly offered me a cup and we talked about Bristol’s world-famous maritime heritage and how the harbour and its uses have transformed.

Since this morning’s visit to Plimsoll Bridge, one lane has been closed for the weekend for emergency repairs.   The team are working hard to get it fixed, but this is a perfect example of the challenges we face while using ageing 1960’s infrastructure.

I remember cycling along the harbour when it was full of derelict warehouses. It’s amazing to think about how much has changed since then and what future development could look like. I want to thank the harbour team for their time this morning, and for the work they do for this important asset every day.

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The Hot Seat

I was sat in John Darvall’s ‘hot-seat’ yesterday morning taking calls from Bristol citizens. I see this as a regular healthy exercise to engage direct with Bristol residents. During the hour, John and I discussed a ‘job swap’ where I helped to host his show for one day and John would come and work with me for a day. This is a great idea and an opportunity for John, as a journalist who hosts politicians and discusses political issues to experience politics at first hand; and for me to experience the different focus of John’s job, hosting a daily phone-in and discussion programme. I also reckon I could play better music.

Politics and media are inter-twined and have essential responsibilities to each other. Politicians should be open and prepared to be held to account and journalists have a duty to openly question political decisions and find truth. However, journalists have more responsibilities than are often considered, particularly in recent years as news coverage has moved away from detail and often towards the sensationalist. There needs to be an understanding they are part of the elite, they can influence thinking and can energise often deliberately negative debate in the name of creating the conflict that is entertainment. The ever present ‘vox pop’ of radio and TV can bias coverage unless carefully managed. The minority voice can often be displayed as the only voice because it’s easy to find and more difficult to seek out majority, quieter views.

This direction of travel for media outlets, of sensationalism and opposition voices is too simple and failing all of us. Just as politicians have to work hard to consider all views, varying options and sometimes make the difficult choices, so journalists and editors should be held to the same standard – the necessity to tell the truth in an unbiased way that shows the arguments in detail and through a prism that reflects the complexities of life and society – even if it costs an easy headline or an internet click or two.

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Going Through The Lobby

You may have seen that I have now formally invited the Core Cities to join with me and our city to hold a national lobby of Parliament in September. I have spent the last two days with core cities and raised the opportunity with them and followed up formally in writing.

There is no doubt cities are close to breaking point when it comes to social care, children’s services and other services and the austerity policies have to be reversed in favour of a pro-investment agenda. Cities need more funding and greater city sovereignty, to face the issues of the day.

You will see the Cities Green Paper soon.  By definition, this has been a piece of work by committee and doesn’t achieve everything I would like to see but forms a basis of our ask to Government. Alongside that ask, we need to show Government how strongly many of us feel about the reductions in funding and the growing pressures on services and that’s why I have asked other cities to join the national lobby day so all citizens can ask their own MP to support the call for realistic funding.

I said publicly last week, people need more than protest. They also need something to believe in, not just argue against. Every great movement articulated and modelled in their behaviours a vision of the better society. We need to do the same.

Our activities will form a very strong two pronged approach to the Government. We will argue for more funding and powers through the lobby while presenting solutions to Government through the Green Paper. We will articulate what Bristol and other cities could be.

I will be writing to Trade Unions in the city, community groups, the People’s Assembly and other groups as well as inviting all citizens to come and join us. This is not shouting from the sidelines. This is building relationships that mean we can raise a shared voice for positive solutions.  Please look out for more details soon.

Zero Hunger Bristol

Over 100 people came together with Andy Street (5K Partnership), Kerry McCarthy MP, and Rosie Oglesby (Feeding Britain) in City Hall to day to launch the Feeding Bristol initiative.

The group agreed to a clearly stated aim.

The Bristol pilot is committed to supporting and encouraging initiatives that improve wellbeing by creating the context for all people in the City of Bristol – irrespective of social or ethnic background – having access to resources, abilities and facilities to grow, purchase, prepare and cook fresh, healthy and affordable food.

In essence we aspire to a ‘Zero Hunger Bristol’

The work is an example of the way the city must work. My office has clearly articulated a city challenge and aim to tackle child hunger. Groups in the city who share that aspiration have come together to offer to develop a plan to make it happen. And they have grown the challenge beyond children to include all Bristolians. We have together committed as a political leadership and city partners to make it happen.

The scale and significance of this aspiration and commitment should not be underestimated. 20,000 people use Bristol food banks every year. Teachers unions are reporting of more teachers using their own money to feed hungry children. Not all things labelled ‘food’ have enough nutritional value to warrant the name. A poor diet in childhood impacts on physical and mental health, education and life chances.

We are asking the city to rally with us – supermarkets, businesses, charities, faith groups, trades unions – to make Bristol a Zero Hunger City.

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Collective Action

We’ve just held our third city gathering as part of the City Office.

Almost 100 leaders from Bristol’s business, public and voluntary sectors came together to address the question of how we can run the city better. This is the challenge of the moment as we try to get better outcomes for people in the face of government imposed austerity that is taking away the resources we have to intervene.

I set out a number of challenges to the room of city leaders.  These included:

  • There is no single organisation than can deliver for themselves or the city working alone,
  • All organisations and sectors in Bristol are interdependent. For example: education is interdependent with health.  Health  is interdependent with business,
  • We have lots of activity, some of it world class, but it’s not coordinated at a city level and that means we are missing out on additional impact that could be had if we were better coordinated.

We looked in some depth at how we can bring together both social action and social responsibility and it was particularly welcome to look at the potential impact of existing corporate social spend, if we can harness this for the good of the city.

The meeting was closed by our Youth Mayors discussing quality work experience, apprenticeships and the future of the city.

If you have an offer for the city, bring it to the City Office with an ask of what you want from us.

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Cost-Cutting Costs

As we continue through the public consultation on our budget, it is revisiting the context within which this is taking place.

From 2010 to 2016, local government faced a real terms funding cut of 37per cent. This on-going austerity, along with financial decisions made by previous administrations, has resulted in Bristol City Council having to make £104 million worth of savings between now and 2022.

The current approach of disinvestment (which goes by the name of austerity) will cost us in the long term as our human and physical assets are underdeveloped. Working with the Core Cities, we will make our case to government on the true cost, not of running a city, but investing in it in order to reap human and financial reward. I have found it remarkable that senior politicians are yet to publically grapple with the fact that the cuts are not free but come at a price that may ultimately be greater than the saving.

We are required to balance the budget by ensuring we do not spend more money than we have come in.   While government retains the power to take local control over all budget decisions through the appointment of external commissioners, passing an illegal budget would be possible but meaningless.   A balanced budget would be forced on the city.  So not only would locally elected politicians lose control and not lead on the priorities we choose but the no cuts budget would never be implemented.    Also, the city would incur reputational damage that would undermine its ability to secure the inward investment needed to build the homes and provide the decent jobs Bristolians need.

Many people tell me what they want to prioritise from our limited spend. I welcome that. I want the city to see the council as its own and the council in turn to be responsive. But we need something more. Our discussion must include not only what but what they are prepared to de-prioritise to get it. In that sense it must become a debate the city has with itself.   No decision is made in an abstract.   If we do not make a saving in one area we have to make it in another area. The consequence of one person’s priority is the de-prioritisation of another person’s priority.  We must invest in crisis services such as homelessness. These compete against early interventions such as primary school mental health which in turn compete with the need to invest in areas such as culture and arts that uphold the city’s profile and attractiveness as a location for businesses to invest and locate.  

Many people have been pointing out the fact that the cuts will incur longer term cost. From trees to parks to special educational needs, there are few areas of council spending that are not designed to make long term savings with the corollary that cuts have long term costs. This is something we are acutely aware of and will take to government. The problem is that we are required to balance our budget and that means cuts. We want the council to be an early intervention organisation, investing to save. The challenge is that investment will represent a spend in this year’s budget while the savings mightn’t come in until 5-10 year’s time.

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Engagement across the board

Today at City Hall we’ve had around 300 children come through the doors. It brought the building to life.

We held a chess tournament for primary school children participating in an initiative we ran with Chess in Schools and Communities (CISC). The room was full of pupils of all backgrounds from every part of the city. The day was capped off with prize giving. CISC told me it was the first mixed tournament where they had more girls than boys participating. Our aim is to grow this, and ensure every primary age school child has the opportunity to learn chess, with all the benefits this has been shown to bring to a child’s development. 

I also had two lots of visitors from Cotham School. This had been arranged by Deputy Mayor Asher Craig, an ex Cotham student. The students had a raft of questions for us: from diversity in politics, to our own stories, to how I protected time with my children, to how much sleep I got and the purpose of politics. Anyone who doubts the interest of young people in politics should have been there. These young people were absolutely engaged. One young man told me he was going to be the next Mayor while others were happy with a mayoral fist bump and a selfie. 

Hosting these visits and events is more than just getting young smiley faces into City Hall. I have set out to de-mystify the city’s politics. In the year I have  been in office, I have had a steady stream of school visits for that very purpose.

I want to reconnect people and politics. Today was not a magic bullet, but the conversations we had suggested many young people left with a sense that politics was relevant to them. Moreover, they left with political hope. I distinguish between political hope and political optimism. Optimism is rootless and flimsy. Hope has integrity in the face of the harsh reality of an unfair world.

I would also say the day gave these young people a sense of ownership of City Hall. This is the city’s building. I want the city to know this, and all that this implies for the city’s leadership and accountability. It should not be as foreboding as it was to me when I was growing up.

We’ll build on this in the coming months and years. We’ll run a voter registration drive, we’ll advocate for votes at 16 and we’ll press the electoral commission to consider us for a trial of e-voting. I want Bristol to be on the forefront of democratic renewal.

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69 Years of our NHS

Today is the 69th Birthday of the NHS.

It is important we understand that the NHS is more than a collection of services. It’s an expression of British values. Free healthcare at the point of delivery irrespective of background is one of the features of this country that mark us out from the rest of the world. We must protect our NHS.

Whether we are talking about  government that lacks a spiritual commitment to the NHS, the effective pay reductions faced by NHS staff or the shrinking finances available for commissioners and service providers, it is without question that our NHS is being weakened.

Undermining it’s ability to deliver will impact on some of the most vulnerable people in our country. This is even more so because we know that poor health disproportionately afflicts the poorest.

In Bristol we are driving forward on a new approach to health leadership. A few weeks ago I met with Simon Stevens (CEO of the NHS) and talked with him about what we are doing.

I shared my concern that while the NHS is absolutely essential, the national conversation has become distorted. Only 10% of population health outcomes are down to health services. 30% are down to personal behaviours and 40% to social policy. I talked with him about the need for the NHS to start making bigger demands of social policy: adequate housing, transport connectivity, descent jobs. These are the biggest determinants of health and wellbeing. I explained to him that I am challenging Bristol’s Health and Wellbeing Board to reform so that it can begin to take this challenge on. My offer to Simon was to deliver a city that was healthier and therefore making less demand of the NHS. My ask was he back up getting the finances we need to invest in our populations lives and health.

It is worth reflecting on this. My concern about the current governments disinvestment approach to national leadership is that its creating the conditions in which the population will be more unwell. In that sense, austerity is a false economy. Rather than investing to reap flourishing, resilient communities that need fewer public services, we are storing up weakened individuals and communities who will need more.