24 Jun Marvin Rees: Bristol is moving from city government to city…
The challenges facing UK local government leaderships are well rehearsed, centring on budget cuts in the face of growing demand made worse by those very cuts.
There has also been centralisation of decision making and resources in a Westminster and Whitehall machine that shows itself unable to connect with the real challenges in our communities. And there is a national leadership unable to provide the stability and certainty leaders of cities and towns need to plan for development.
“The default position of lazy political journalism, the twitterati and political ‘debate’ operates as though it all begins and ends with the council”
While these weaknesses find their expression in Brexit, they would be there anyway. They underpin the failure to deliver on the key issues from climate change to air quality, inequality, migration, population health and security. It is in the face of these challenges, and a belief our context won’t change any time soon, that we have sought to rejuvenate placebased leadership.
In Bristol our approach to better leadership of place comes out of an understanding that we have been sharing with the city. That what people experience as Bristol is not the outcome of decisions made by Bristol City Council alone.
Citizens experience the product of the whole collection of decisions made by their local government, health services, criminal justice system, their voluntary sector and businesses. Interplaying with this is the fact that financial burdens and service performance are heavily interdependent.
Key place-shaping sectors and institutions work together in the moment and over time. Health, education, street safety, workforce resilience and housing all rely on each other to deliver. The failure of one increases the likelihood of failure in another, today, tomorrow and over the coming decades.
This sounds obvious, so much so that it is almost embarrassing to write it. And yet, the default position of lazy political journalism, the twitterati and what is passed off as political ‘debate’ operates as though it all begins and ends with the council.
Within two months of my election in May 2016, we convened the first ‘city gathering’. We invited CEOs and directors from a whole range of organisations and sectors to come together to explore whether we could identify common goals.
My office had undertaken a rough calculation and found that although many public sector organisations were facing austerity, the collective spending power in the room was well over £6bn and between us we employed more than 70,000 people. I asked the room what would be beyond us if we all, on that morning, agreed a disciplined number of aims for Bristol and allowed those objectives to influence the way we spent our money and engaged our employees.
That meeting was the basis of our City Office and a Bristol One City Plan.
The One City Plan is a simple timeline that runs to 2050. It is built on a citywide agreement of what we want Bristol to be in 2050 and the sequence of priorities and outcomes we should deliver each year for us to realise that vision. When we launched the first iteration of the Bristol One City Plan in January we had 230 leaders in the room engaging and interacting with this road map. We are clear that the plan is not perfect, not set in stone and is not a plan to usurp all other plans. It doesn’t eliminate differences of view but rather, it is there to offer focus and be something for the city to grapple with and discuss. It is to be refreshed and relaunched each January so it can be a live document owned by the city outside of the political cycle.
The City Office and the Bristol One City Plan are part of a movement from city government to city governance. City governments are bound up in the simplistic excessive focus on local government and the contest between local councillors. City governance works within the realities of our interdependencies. It takes local authority leaders beyond command and control power and seeks to understand, organise and direct the collective power of a place. It is as much about the way we work, how we identify challenges and opportunities, and develop our plans to meet them, how we build our working relationships and culture, as any particular projects and policy. As our chief constable said to me: “World class public leadership today is not about what you control, but about what you influence.”
Marvin Rees, mayor, Bristol City Council