It has been a bruising year for the UK’s mayors, many of whom have found themselves handling the local fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic while preparing for Brexit and dealing with a Westminster government they have criticised for its chaotic approach to the crisis.
Bristol’s mayor, Marvin Rees, is looking for greater co-operation between cities and central government. “You’ve got to talk to your cities about your policy to make sure that what you’re developing does not have negative unintended consequences, is locally relevant and is best suited to keeping our economies alive,” he says.
Mr Rees thinks very centralised political systems are coming up short. “That’s not just in the UK, and not just on Covid, but on climate change and inequality as well,” he explains. “Cities are beginning to organise themselves. UK cities want to have open channels to trade, and relate and work with European cities.”
As mayor of a city that voted to remain in the EU (61.7%), Mr Rees is keen to maintain links between Bristol and other European locations.
“We will do our bit to maintain connectivity. That’s not just cultural connectivity — that’s for the sake of all those businesses in Bristol and our universities who need to have the channels to keep business opportunities on the continent as open as possible.”
During the first wave of the pandemic, Bristol’s Covid numbers were consistently below the national average, but the authority faced challenges connected to increased demand for services combined with a loss of revenue.
In addition to providing immediate support to families and businesses, the mayor says the city is reorienting its sustainable development goals. “We’ve been very proactive in getting our economic renewal strategy together. It’s been written with business, unions and the voluntary sector, and focuses on labour and markets, business, investments and our high streets and city centres to make sure we keep our economy alive.”
Innovation, culture and the creative sector play an important role in the city’s economy, with the Engine Shed and Set Squared incubators attracting international attention. “In line with that innovation is our creative sector,” says Mr Rees. “Companies like Aardman Animations, Plimsoll Productions and our natural history broadcasting take the city brand around the world and contribute to attracting other companies and people with expertise looking for investment opportunities. We’re continuing to support that with our international work, using our city-to-city diplomacy to open channels for our companies to connect.”
Bristol is also focused on building its green infrastructure, which Mr Rees sees as key to driving jobs and growth while pushing decarbonisation. One of the city’s flagship green programmes is City Leap. “It’s a billion-pound package of investments in our energy system, from generation to distribution and storage,” he explains. “That’s an opportunity to make a chapter change to the way the city relates to energy.”
Mr Rees believes inequality has been a point of weakness in Bristol.
“The way we build back will not be a value-free dash for growth,” he says. “This crisis has given us an opportunity to test every system that we depend on — education, transport, political — and understand where they are strong and weak. We’ve set out to try to build back more resilient, but also be a city that reduces the contribution it makes to the likelihood of future shocks.”
This article first appeared in the December/January print edition of fDi Intelligence. View a digital edition of the magazine here.