The Centre for Cities have published their annual Cities Outlook report looking at the challenges and opportunities that cities across the country face. The report identifies Bristol as being among a group of cities with “strong economies who have only been marginally affected by Covid.” Behind that endorsement of our economic strength, however, we are seeing a more complex picture on the ground, and so I wanted to share some of my reflections on the report, its recommendations, and what this means for Bristol’s economic recovery.
Employment and the impact on people’s jobs, earnings and conditions remains a real concern across and within cities. The report highlights that while Bristol has not seen the growth in unemployment that other cities in the UK have, key sectors that support jobs in the city and region have been hit hard. Bristol, for example, has felt the effects of job losses in the aviation industry, which is why we called for action when job losses at Airbus threatened the livelihoods of the 3,000 people employed at Filton. Bristol’s commitment to environmental sustainability can help us recover from these job losses if we get the right support from government. We need the government to front load green infrastructure in their recovery to enable us to line up the local supply chain and reskill workforces to deliver schemes like retrofitting homes, and the decarbonisation of our energy and transport systems.
We know too, that there are parts of our communities which are more vulnerable to job losses as a result of the economic fallout from Covid-19. More than half of under 25s and over 65s have been placed on furlough or have lost their jobs as they are more likely to be in roles where the toughest restrictions have been imposed. Workers from ethnic minorities have been most likely to be exposed to the virus, to die from it, and are most likely to have lost their jobs. Our economic recovery must therefore grapple with this uneven distribution of job losses and unemployment, or else we will only see these inequalities entrenched and exacerbated within our city.
The report makes clear that inequality exists within cities and regions as well as between them. Binaries like “the North South divide” or “urban vs rural” obscure the ways that Covid is having an effect on jobs, livelihoods and health in complex ways across the country and in our city. Covid has exacerbated the clear correlation that already existed between wards with the highest unemployment and the numbers of areas of high deprivation. Our Economic Recovery Strategy therefore identifies specific places which need targeted intervention such as addressing long-term unemployment and income deprivation in South Bristol, and developing an economic strategy for Avonmouth.
Investment in transport infrastructure is key. In the short term, public transport requires support and innovation. Bristol is reflecting national trends in that fewer people are travelling by public transport than they were before lockdown. When restrictions ease, however, we expect more people to commute regularly to workplaces and to visit other parts of the city. The government need to make sure that our bus and rail services are in a financial position to support our vision for more people travelling across the city on public transport, rather than in private cars. Longer-term, if we want to unlock Bristol’s economic potential of our city and reduce congestion and car-dependency we need a mass transit system that will both create jobs in Bristol, and connect people to jobs and opportunities within the wider region. Government needs to back us on that ambition
The report argues that the success of cities like Bristol is crucial, both in the short-term response to covid, and on delivering on the government’s levelling up agenda. I welcome the call for the government to press ahead with devolution and reap the benefits from the knowledge and successful delivery that local leaders have shown throughout the crisis. As Andy Burnham shared at the report launch, if the government’s ambitions for “levelling up” are to mean anything, people across cities must experience the benefits in their day-to-day lives: in their finances, in their health, and in their environment. To make that a reality, we need a long-term, bankable partnership with government, where we have the powers, the funding and the sovereignty we need to shape our response and drive forward our ambitions for Bristol.