WECA, WECA, WECA, tell me more, tell me more

In recent weeks, you may have seen some coverage about North Somerset joining the West of England Combined Authority (WECA). In the interests of transparency, we are pleased to share details of our correspondence on the issue as well as a timeline and the prospectus that we had hoped to share with Government, had we been able to secure a meeting with them.

It’s important to again be clear that I’ve always supported the expansion of WECA. North Somerset are a key part of our region and I would support them joining where it would benefit and not disadvantage Bristol residents. In fact I’ve supported co-operation that extends beyond the WECA footprint including North Somerset, to ensure we’re taking a truly regional approach to key issues such as transport, housing and jobs.

I believe we have an opportunity to deliver what the Northern Powerhouse and Midlands Engine have delivered in the North and Midlands respectively. That’s why I’m pleased to see the progress that’s being made in relation to the Western Gateway, which we founded with Cardiff and Newport, a cross-border economic partnership with a focus on clear and inclusive growth for the region. This partnership covers an area from Swansea to Swindon and from Gloucester to Bath.

The issue here is not that we don’t want North Somerset to join. The issues are many. Among them are:

  • That there is no Government financial offer on the table to support expansion, which means we potentially risk splitting the existing pot four ways instead of three. That would disadvantage Bristolians. It is not possible to have a meaningful consultation with people of Bristol and the city region if we don’t know the offer or what we’re asking people. We’ve had two cancelled meetings with government at which we wanted to get a Government commitment to adequately fund any expansion. The only offer has been for Luke Hall MP to have a conversation with the Treasury. We have had no new offer, despite other regions having up to six new financial deals since they created their combined authorities.
  • We are the economic centre of the region, representing around two-thirds of the region’s economy, but there is no recognition of this in the way in which regional decisions are made. I have repeatedly highlighted concerns when it comes to governance, when so often I have faced a push for money to be split three ways. Not in relation to population, not in relation to need or economic impact, just a crude three way split. Combined authorities exist to take a strategic look at where money is best invested in a region. Sadly we are lacking that. An example of this is High Streets where we face the assumption that funding is shared evenly, despite Bristol having 47 high streets – a third more than Bath & North East Somerset and four times as many as South Gloucestershire.

Beyond this, we have sometimes had open opposition voiced to the investment needs of Bristol, on issues ranging from housing in Hengrove, to the mass transit system, to the work to bring forward the new University Campus in Temple Quarter. This is important to our city’s interests and ensuring that WECA works.

I am batting for the investment that Bristol needs for us to grow in an inclusive and sustainable way. It’s my job to stand up for Bristol’s interests and I make no apology for doing so, even when the consequences get contentious.

It’s disappointing that these debates are being had in public. It does nothing to improve government trust in our ability to deliver. Bristol is focused on delivery and that is why we have taken a stand for our city.

The people behind the numbers

Twenty-three homeless people are estimated to have died in Bristol in 2019, according to the Office for National Statistics. Along with cities like Liverpool, Manchester, and Birmingham, Bristol tragically ranks amongst the most affected in England and Wales.

Homelessness is a complex issue but the simple truth is this: one person sleeping rough is one person too many; one death on our streets is one death too many.

The pandemic has only further highlighted this long-standing injustice. Working together as One City, since March we have supported 1,200 people with housing placements and helped 700 more families keep a roof over their heads. Across Bristol, people are struggling to make ends meet – only a few steps away from crisis. It has never been more important to safeguard our city’s safety net, and we continue to provide a range of support to Bristolians. To seek advice if you, or someone you know, is at risk from homelessness, please visit our dedicated website for advice and support. If you are concerned about someone sleeping rough, please make a referral through Street Link.

It is welcome that Bristol has secured almost £5 million of funding towards longer-term solutions, including additional accommodation and wrap-around services. Our hope is that there will be a clear and sustainable funding settlement for homelessness, so that we never return to the endless bidding-and-waiting bingo structure; otherwise uncertainty will continue to compound crises, with all that means for those depending on councils to help end this injustice.

Human Rights Day: Treating everyone with dignity and respect

To mark this occasion, today’s blog comes from my Inclusion Adviser on Migration, Forward Maisokwadzo

Today is Human Rights Day, 10 December – the day the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948. This milestone document proclaims the inalienable rights to which everyone is entitled as human beings – regardless of race, colour, religion, sex, gender, language, political or other opinion, national or social origin, or any other status.

The Declaration arose from a desire to never again witness the dreadful inhumanity which had led to millions of people being killed in a war that had affected the globe. It was never a set of supreme statements but a set of practical standards by which humanity should seek to live and conduct itself, by which the nations of the world would co-exist in peace and unity. It is all about what it means to be human.

This year’s Human Rights Day theme, Recover Better – Stand Up for Human Rights, relates to the COVID-19 pandemic and focuses on the need to build back better by ensuring Human Rights are central to recovery efforts. It could not be more relevant. We will only achieve our common global goals if we are able to create equal opportunities for all, address the failures exposed and fueled by the COVID-19 crisis, and apply human rights standards to tackle entrenched, systemic, and intergenerational inequalities, exclusion and discrimination.

December 10is an opportunity to reaffirm the importance of human rights in re-building our city and the world we want, the need for global solidarity, (including city to city) as well as to celebrate interconnectedness and shared humanity.

The UN Human Rights’ generic call to action “Stand Up for Human Rights” aims to engage the general public and the UN family to bolster transformative action and showcase practical and inspirational examples that can contribute to recovering better and fostering more resilient and just societies.

From here in Bristol I am aware of so many events and debates being held, nationally and across the globe, to acknowledge and celebrate this day. I am sure these events, debates and discussions, the majority of them being held virtually due to the pandemic, will provide an opportunity to highlight what has been achieved to date while at the same time pointing us all to the work that still needs to be done.

Three global issues – the pandemic, racial inequality, and the climate emergency – show that what we have in common as human beings is far more important than our differences.

As we look ahead to 2021, what are the pivotal human rights issues that all of us should be paying attention to?  We are at the dawn of a decade when the decisions we make as a City and in society at large on how to address economic inequality, climate change, technological innovation, and political polarisation will shape our shared future for generations to come.

I hope there will be a sense that human rights are the concern of all, and not just the concern of a particular minority interest group. The challenge is increasingly to make human rights part and parcel of ordinary discourse, debate and priority especially in the current environment where political debate has often become toxic and divisive, and basic human rights become invisible.

The world does not stand still and as we celebrate human rights today we need to consider the challenges which are affecting our communities now. We must stand united with so many groups across Bristol, the UK and globally who are calling for everyone to be treated with dignity and respect: the carers, LGBT communities, children, older people, people affected by dementia, black and minority ethnic communities, people seeking sanctuary and other migrant communities, people with learning disabilities, people affected by the Windrush scandal, women experiencing domestic violence, among many others.

The UK has long played a leading role in protecting human rights across the globe and was one of the first nations to sign the UDHR. British lawyers drafted the European Convention on Human Rights in 1950, which in 1998 was given further effect in UK law through the Human Rights Act. As we celebrate this global Human Rights Day and in the midst of a pandemic, it is worrying the Government has recently ordered to review the Human Rights Act. Such a move Amnesty International says puts some communities and rights at risk. The human rights watchdog stressed that it is important for Government to understand that promoting universal human rights should not just be abroad, but here at home as well. Hillsborough, Grenfell, and other issues underline the importance of an effective Human Rights Act here in the UK. As we celebrate Human Rights Day the Government needs to reflect on whether there is need to review the rights and freedoms that underpin our democracy.

End Our Cladding Scandal

Three-and-a-half years on from the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower, there is still a real lack of clarity from the Government on how to tackle remaining cladding issues. Justice4Grenfell, the Fire Brigades’ Union, and other campaigners are right to continue to highlight dangerous building materials and need for stronger regulations.

Bristol residents remain understandably worried about if and when cladding will be replaced, who will be doing the work, and who will be footing the bill. In the meantime, around the country, concerning reports are emerging of leaseholders not being able to move or sell due to a shortage of certified inspectors; properties being mis-advertised amid a market crisis; freeholders refusing inspections; and forms being signed off by unqualified persons. This issue cuts across a number of national government departments – demanding both major attention and, most likely, several billion pounds worth of funding.

Full Council is due to consider a cross-party motion this afternoon on this subject, which has been published on the council’s website. Ahead of the meeting, I can confirm my support for the End Our Cladding Scandal campaign, calling for much needed additional support from national government.

While only national government currently has the resources to fund a comprehensive solution, options are being explored for how the council might support residents. This could include lobbying private building owners and housing associations, and looking at what scope exists for pre-occupation planning conditions to be withheld where there are outstanding issues in Bristol. The motion, strengthened by Cllr Nicola Beech, my Cabinet Member for Spatial Planning and City Design, also explores whether the Council might be able to use freeholder application fees to upskill and sustain a dedicated building control team to perform EWS1 assessments. There is also consideration of a training scheme for local councillors and encouraging these representatives to increase pressure on freeholders as needed.

For more information about improvements to fire safety in council houses and high-rise blocks, please visit the Council’s dedicated webpage.

Supporting Bristol’s hospitality sector

The Government has placed Bristol into tier 3, but left the city’s businesses and council with a multi-million pound shortfall.

We support the calls by the Bristol Association of Restaurants, Bars, and Independent Establishments (BARBIE) for more support from the Government. Here’s my full reply to their recent letter.

Dear Brendan,

Thank you for sharing the attached letter with me and for reaching out regarding support for Bristol’s hospitality sector.

I appreciate how challenging this year has been, particularly for those working in hospitality. The way in which businesses have adapted to keep people safe in recent months has been phenomenal, although this will have undoubtedly taken its toll.

I recognise there are gaps in support and have written to government several times on the issue. I have also spoken publicly about the need for more comprehensive support, most recently alongside Andy Burnham, Sadiq Khan and Steve Rotherham in collaboration with ExcludedUK.

Unfortunately, I have no power to ask that landlords don’t collect rent and Bristol City Council is not in a position to pay the rents of hospitality businesses. We are facing a multi-million pound black hole as a result of the pandemic, with the real prospect of cuts being made as a result of inadequate support from government.

I am pleased to see you including the city’s MPs in the conversation, as they are well placed to raise these issues on the national stage.

I’m keen we continue working closely with the sector and would be grateful if you could help us to quantify the impact on hospitality businesses in the city. For example, do you have figures relating to the rent arrears that businesses may be facing and the costs associated with your asks? This will allow us to consider how best to highlight this issue.

We will continue to use the tools available to us to support all those who have signed your letter, as well as drawing attention to the challenges facing the sector more broadly.

Thank you once again for reaching out and I look forward to hearing from you.

Kind regards,

Marvin Rees

Mayor of Bristol

Small Business Saturday

Today’s guest blog is from Councillor Afzal Shah, Cabinet Member for Sustainable Growth, Climate, and Ecology and Labour Councillor for Easton.

Small Business Saturday is a welcome opportunity for us to celebrate the vital importance of small businesses to local neighbourhoods and communities. By shopping at our local businesses, and on our local high streets, we help ensure that they receive the vital support which they deserve in the run up to the all-important Christmas shopping period. Simply put: shopping locally is shopping sustainably.

Small local businesses employ local people and invest locally, but have faced unprecedented difficulty throughout the year. We are keen to ensure our high streets and local businesses are vibrant, sustainable, and continue to thrive as much as possible. We know that 2020 has been tough, and continue to provide a range of support to local businesses and call for more help from national Government.

In Easton, as local residents and councillors, Councillor Ruth Pickersgill and I know how loved local independent businesses are. Along Stapleton Road and St Marks Road, local eateries, pubs, grocers, supermarkets, florists, gift shops, post offices, and much more besides contribute much to our vibrant local identity – alongside charities, places of worship, and other community groups. Traders associations have brought an entrepreneurial buzz to the area, with still more potential in the regeneration of the old job centre building. To help highlight Bristol businesses, Thangam Debbonaire, the MP for Bristol West, has started the #IndependentBristol campaign on social media, encouraging people to use the hashtag to profile independent shops, restaurants and other small businesses in the run up to Christmas.

Local small businesses continue to play a pivotal in local communities, especially when most of us were confined to our homes for much of this year. Local businesses espouse a sense of friendship and interaction between shoppers and staff. It is these local businesses that, according to the Federation of Small Businesses, offer employment to almost 3 million people, and nobody quite knows local communities in the same way as local retailers and shopkeepers.

All in all, local small businesses make a huge contribution to the local economy, locally investing over 60 pence in every £1 – they really are the lifeblood of the UK’s economy.

International Day of People with Disabilities

3rd December is International Day of People with Disabilities; to mark this day I have invited the Disabled Colleagues Network at Bristol City Council to write today’s blog.

The Disabled Colleagues Network strives to drive change for disabled people within the council, working with colleagues from all service areas and departments to make Bristol City Council a great place for disabled people to work and feel valued.

International Day of People with Disabilities promotes equality for people with disabilities in all areas of society and brings to attention the benefits that disabled people contribute in every aspect of political, social, economic and cultural society. This year’s theme is ‘Not all Disabilities are Visible’, aiming to spread awareness of invisible disabilities as well as the impact that Covid-19 has had on mental health.

This year’s theme highlights that many disabilities are not immediately apparent but can still have an impact on people’s lives, these include but are not limited to mental health problems, chronic pain or fatigue, sight or hearing impairments, HIV, cancer, diabetes, epilepsy, brain injuries, neurological disorders, conditions on the autistic spectrum and learning difficulties.

In this blog we are celebrating our diversity, how we are all differently able and championing the rights to equality under the social model of disability.

Imagine a world where there are no barriers to education, housing, health and social care, buildings and facilities and where flexible policies, practices and procedures are in place for everyone. The social model of disability states that it is society which disables impaired people. If society was set up in a way that was accessible for people with disabilities then they would not be excluded or restricted and there would be no limits to what can be achieved.  

Disabled people are extremely resourceful, great problem solvers, creative thinkers and warriors in their determination to succeed. There are numerous examples of disabled people working doubly hard to overcome the barriers set by society and in their work places to achieve enormous feat’s and make the world a better place. Here are but a few:

  • Marsha de Cordova the Labour Shadow Secretary of State for Women and Equalities, continues to expose deep-rooted structural inequalities in our society;
  • Teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg states ‘I have Aspergers and that means I’m sometimes a bit different from the norm. And – given the right circumstances- being different is a superpower’;
  • Actor Daniel Radcliffe who is most famous for his role as Harry Potter declares “Go boldly and honestly through the world. Learn to love the fact that there is nobody else quite like you.”
  • Michael Phelps, American Swimmer noted “ You can’t put a limit on anything. The more you dream, the further you get.”
  • Dr Benjamin Zephaniah a nationally recognised poet and author points out “If someone can’t understand dyslexia it’s their problem. In the same way, if someone oppresses me because of my race I don’t sit down and think, “How can I become white?” It’s not my problem, it’s theirs and they are the ones who have to come to terms with it.”
  • Even the Royal Family live with disabilities, with Prince Harry revealing his struggles with mental health and advocating for more awareness and support for those with mental health problems.

Over a billion people, about 15% of the world’s population, have some form of disability and rates of disability are increasing due to population ageing and increases in chronic health conditions, among other causes. Despite disabled people making up a large proportion of the world’s population we still face challenges in education and employment and disabled people are significantly more likely to be victims of crime than non-disabled people.

These structural inequalities in our society have been exposed as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, leaving many disabled people isolated, disconnected, coping with disrupted routines and diminished services, greatly impacting on their lives and mental wellbeing.

Due to the stigma surrounding disability many people choose not to identify as disabled for fear of discrimination. This creates disproportionate data for disabled people and leaves many without the support they need to live their daily lives. This is why it is important we start a more inclusive conversation about disability to break the silence and realise the endless possibilities for disabled people and their value to society. 

On 21 September 2020 Councillor Asher Craig announced the launching of the Mayor’s Disability Equality Commission. The commission is being established in recognition of the inequalities faced by disabled people in the city, in addition the particularly negative impact Covid 19 pandemic is having on disabled people. It is important that the whole city is involved and that the commission is accessible to all social-demographics. This will feed into the experiences and position of Disabled people in Bristol and develop strategic plans to tackle inequality. The advertisement for the independent Chair of the Commission will be shared through Disabled networks in the city in December 2020. Following the appointment of an Independent Chair, they will then lead on the recruitment of Commissioners. It is hoped the commission will be officially launched by spring 2021, when it will be handed over to a Disability organisation in Bristol who will help to support and co-ordinate the Commissions work.

The Mayor and Deputy Mayor for Communities, Equalities and Public Health committed to taking positive action and that is what the Commission is doing. “You said We did“.

If you are a Disabled person, a Disabled staff network, an organisation of Disabled people or an organisation working on Disabled people’s issues and would like to be included in the consultation process please email mayor@bristol.gov.uk  

To all disabled people across the world we wish you a Happy International Day of People with Disabilities.

World AIDS Day

Today’s guest blog is from Aled Osborne, Fundraising and Communications manager for Brigstowe and LGBT & HIV activist.

World AIDS Day is a global awareness day that is held annually on December 1st. This day is an opportunity for people worldwide to unite in the fight against HIV, to show support for people living with HIV, and to commemorate those who have died from an AIDS-related illness.

In the UK over 105,000 people are living with HIV. Despite the virus only being identified in 1984, more than 35 million people have died, making it one of the most destructive pandemics in history.

2020 for all of us has been a challenging year but here at Brigstowe, along with our city-wide partners, we are all dedicated in ensuring this year’s World Aids Day is no different. Brigstowe are a local HIV support charity. We support anyone living with or affected by HIV in Bristol and the surrounding area and have been doing so for nearly 25 years.

Today, advancements in treatment mean that people living with HIV can live long and healthy lives. This treatment means they cannot pass HIV onto their sexual partners. Men and women living with HIV can now start families safe in the knowledge that their child will not be diagnosed as HIV positive. This is known as U=U or Undetectable=Untransmittable. Despite these medical advancements, societal attitudes still remain in the past. People do not know the facts of living with HIV in 2020 and stigma and discrimination remain a reality. 1 in 3 people living with HIV have faced HIV-related stigma and people living with HIV are twice as likely to be diagnosed with depression as the general public. It is also this stigma that prevents people from getting tested. In Bristol it is estimated that 8% of people living with HIV are undiagnosed. It is also this stigma which, for the approximately 1000 people living with HIV in Bristol, can prevent them from feeling part of a community and maintaining long and meaningful relationships.

From City Leadership, NHS Services to third sector we are all committed to ending new HIV diagnoses by 2030 and to eradicating HIV-related stigma.

That is why we as a City are part of the global Fast Track Cities Initiative. The Bristol Fast Track City action plan is also included in the Bristol One City plan.

The work Bristol is doing is leading the way. Our partners at Unity Sexual Health were able to be one of the first UK cities to deliver on the National PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis – a drug which has been proven to prevent HIV acquisition) roll-out and during the first lockdown initiated a programme to test the homeless communities of Bristol. As a result of our Fast Track Cities partnership, nearly £500k in funding has recently been secured from The Health Foundation for a three year project to tackle HIV inequalities in African and Caribbean heritage communities of Bristol.

In March, Bristol was visited by the National HIV Commission. Information from their visit fed into their forthcoming recommendations to Government on how to end HIV transmission in the UK by 2030. These will be published today, on World AIDS Day, in an event including Sir Elton John.

Standing up for #ExcludedUK

Since the pandemic, three million people have been excluded from meaningful national government financial support. New starters, newly self-employed, new small businesses, those on parental leave, on freelance short-term contracts, and other workers left behind make up 10% of the UK’s workforce. After being left to fall through the cracks, Excluded UK was set up to campaign for more support.

Key sectors in and around our city have been hit hard this year – with support from Government lacking so far. Bristol’s economy now has at least 8,000 fewer jobs than at the start of the pandemic. 100,000 Bristolians are employed in, or in work supported by, the night time economy and creative and cultural sectors. We have quadrupled the council’s business team so that they can distribute grants swiftly to those who are eligible, but we share the frustration about gaps in the national system and strict conditions attached to the funding which we do have. As administration, we have also supported the #LetUsDance campaign, to extend protection for the dance music sector, and the Raise the Bar campaign, to give thousands more businesses access to business rates relief.

With Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Greater Manchester, and Steve Rotheram, the Mayor of Liverpool City Region, last week I met with Excluded UK and heard first-hand about the impact of the Government’s lack of support. People affected are really struggling, and so I have written to the Chancellor of the Exchequer to highlight the issues raised and call for more to do be done to help people through this crisis. I have also signed a joint letter organised by Prospect and Bectu with other trade unions, business leaders, industry bodies, and Mayors. You can check out the video from last week’s event and the letters, below.

The importance of aid

One of my first jobs was with Tearfund, a leading UK charity working to end poverty around the world. I met fellow development workers and the people whose lives were changing for the better, and was inspired to support Jubilee 2000’s campaign for debt relief for the world’s poorest countries. British aid can be a truly powerful force for good, as we saw last year after a cyclone destroyed 90% of Beira, Bristol’s twin city in Mozambique.

Some say that charity starts at home. That’s a perfectly valid point of view, and a sentiment which people will no doubt have added sympathy for in times as tough as these. But Bristolians will struggle to believe that is the approach of this Government, who just weeks ago refused to feed hungry children in Bristol and across the UK during the October half-term.

Like the Prime Minister dissolving the Department for International Development within two months of taking office, cutting international aid is a short-sighted and backward step. The current legislation sets our contribution at 0.7% of Gross National Income: rising when the economy grows, and falling when it contracts. In the midst of a crisis like the current pandemic, that makes sense – but the Government has instead chosen to cut aid spending by almost three-times the forecasted fall in the UK’s economy.

Nor is this a party political issue. Government Ministers who understand the economic logic of ‘aid then trade’ have resigned over this. A Conservative former Secretary of State for International Development has warned that these cuts risk pushing more people into extreme poverty and – by reducing childhood immunisations and scaling back healthcare investments which stop women from dying in childbirth – contributing to 100,000 preventable deaths around the world.

Through international networks like the Mayors’ Migration Council and Global Parliament of Mayors, and in partnership with the C40, we work together with cities from every continent to tackle common challenges. For a city like Bristol – with nearly 100 languages spoken and home to communities hailing or descending from places all over the world – the global is often not just local but personal and so, for many Bristolians, this announcement will be too.