No Going Back

I was pleased to hear the Prime Minister encouraging the country to return to work on foot and by bike when the lockdown is lifted.

It reflected the reality that releasing the country from the lockdown is inevitable, complex, necessary and fraught with risk. There are fundamental principles that must be in place to minimise an easing of restrictions leading to a second surge of Covid. Among them are:

  • Hand washing and hygiene
  • Social/Physical Distancing
  • Shielding the vulnerable
  • Identification and contact tracing

Walking and cycling will support with social distancing. It may also be the case that people and businesses have learnt new working patterns, perhaps that not everybody needs to attend a place of work daily and we can enhance the working from home arrangements, where possible.

But we need government to back that verbal encouragement with the legislative space and proactive investment cities need to redesign themselves. This will enable us to introduce changes that are thought through, systemic and minimise the potential of unintended consequences, rather than ad hoc and temporary.

Our Deputy Mayor Craig Cheney and Exec Director of Business West James Durie are co-chairs of the Bristol One City Economy Board. They have brought the board together every week since the crisis began to plan how we survive: by understanding business risks/needs, supporting us paying out business grants and how we face the potential of mass unemployment.  But also, they are planning how we will recover. Through supporting business to find recovering markets, skills programmes to support people back into work and securing the investment Bristol needs.

In those sessions we have discussed not only how we get the economy moving again and maintain high levels of employment, but how we proactively build the future economy into one we want and need – one that is more sustainable and inclusive. We have been thinking through how we can make the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals the framework for the new economy. We are framing a challenge that takes account of traditionally economic issues, such as investment and jobs, but also takes seriously the context within which the economy operates and considers issues such as our mental health, childcare and education.

In taking these questions on we are not talking about a project here and a project there. We are talking about the need for a 20-25 year programme of work to redesign our cities and transform the systems (energy, waste, transport, water, food, education) within which we live. Our cities and systems have grown and developed with little regard to the planet. The result is that if you want to live a low impact life you have to be aware, intentional and be able to afford to pay for it. We need a system that makes low impact living something our system provides even if you are not thinking about it or able to spend the extra to buy the locally sourced, organic option. You don’t, for example, have to think about or pay more to use one of Bristol’s biogas buses rather than a diesel bus. You just catch the bus.

We need government to break free of Whitehall and talk directly with city leaders about the scale of our ambition, the cost and opportunity in overhauling the re-design of our cities. They need to come to those talks ready to back us in securing the billions of pounds of investment that will be required.

And now is the time to do this. There is a practical reality that redesigning roads, pavements and digging holes is easier while there are fewer cars on the road. And there is an economic reality that bringing the investment forward into our depressed economy can bring the stimulus we need to enable our local businesses and jobs to survive.

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