New thinking or more of the same?

Is the Council’s new Corporate Strategy fit for purpose for a world-class, smart city of the future?

Mayor Marvin Rees and I definitely agree on one thing; that Bristol’s biggest issue right now is its inequality. I’m pretty sure we agree on a lot more, and there is much to applaud in the Council’s draft Corporate Strategy published yesterday.

I spent 3 hours reading and then commenting on it via the on-line consultation. It’s three hours I’ll never get back, but in theory at least, it is the single most important document for the city, driving the delivery of services and setting the direction of travel in the longer term.

Buried on page 77, I was pleased to find the following 5 year objective; to ensure that “Bristol is carbon neutral by 2050”. Aside from the obvious clash of timeline, there is something of a major issue with the inclusion of this target; that almost nothing else in the strategy is going to help achieve it. For example, two pages later, on page 79, the document calls for inwards investment to grow the economy, including an expansion in Bristol’s aerospace industry! There are notable exceptions, including renewable energy commitments, but precious little else.

It is foolish to blame Marvin for the document’s inconsistencies. He has inherited an appalling budget situation, with a system of public services established using silo mentality emanating right from the very top of government. He has rightly called for powers under devolution to join up budgets so that service delivery can be more efficient and hopefully more effective too. He has (bravely?) initiated a conversation about an increase in Council Tax to plug the gap left by the government’s disastrous austerity budgets of recent years. I’m less convinced by the proposal to set up “urban parishes” as a way of persuading council taxpayers to part with their cash.

The strategy’s constituent elements are, in the main, sensible, and it is verging on the criminal that further cuts to public finances are going to undermine their potential impact. There are very few of the Mayor’s ‘bold ideas’ that you will wish to disagree with if you get round to answering the consultation’s somewhat loaded questions.

But the documents biggest issues are its lack of overall vision and consequent coherence. The first sentence has “but” as its sixth word, setting it up as an apology rather than a compelling narrative for the UK’s ‘best’ city. If Bristol really is going to be a world-class, leading-edge, smart city of the future, then the radical shift has to start now. Tackling inequality is not going to be achieved with anything less than a fundamental shift in economic, social and indeed environmental thinking. Of course, a 5-year Council strategy document was never going to solve the ills of modern society, but by setting out broader understanding of the need for change, the Mayor might have signaled an understanding of the patient’s holistic health issue, rather than just offering a series of bandages to stop the bleeding.

You can choose from three such sticking plasters for Bristol’s housing crisis; an aspiration for 800 more ‘affordable’ houses per year, better use of existing stock, and early intervention to prevent homelessness. For me, this is a classic symptom of the Council’s lack of radical thinking, when all over the world we are seeing the emergence of far more exciting ideas, from large scale shared ownership self-build, to the provision of individual single room dwellings for the homeless. It is the same on transport, and public health.

However, that’s just me, and you may feel differently. Thankfully, we live in democracy, which means you don’t just have to wait until 2020 to have your say. Get stuck in, and tell the Council what you think. Read it here: STRATEGY and feedback your comments here: CONSULTATION.

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