Any outsider asked to comment on Bristol’s prospects should, of course, tread fairly carefully. I love coming to the city but claim no special knowledge of it. I like to think I’ve been here enough to see past the standard cliché that it’s a city made of hipsters and hills, balloons and bridges. But I have no granular understanding of the different communities within the city, the twists and turns of its economy, and how its politics have ebbed and flowed.
So I’m going to rely instead on some arid statistics to form a dispassionate external impression. Statistics are, of course, always partial and quite often misleading. They never tell the whole story — they’re just dots on a chart. But if you join the dots you form a picture, even if it’s a sketchy one. And pictures can be very revealing. As I’ll explain, the image that emerges for me is a city that has rare strengths as well as major challenges.
What’s happened in Bristol should, I think, be of interest across the country. That’s because to some degree Bristol’s story reflects the received wisdom about the correct recipe for urban economic success. Mix physical regeneration of a city-centre with a successful and growing university, a large pool of high-skilled labour and strong transport links. Sprinkle in some cultural-cool and a high quality of life. And then sit back and watch a place thrive. On this basis, Bristol has the lot.
Given these ingredients, how does the city perform? Like most things, it’s a mixed story. Its strengths are very real: simply put, it has high employment levels, above average pay for those working in the city, and a remarkably high share of graduates in the workforce. These are big assets. Some cities have lots of jobs but weak pay; others have decent pay but fewer jobs. To do well on both fronts is impressive. And being a magnet for graduates is more vital than ever. Every city that wants to succeed in high-knowledge, high-value sectors will always require a critical mass of highly-educated workers. Outside of London, Bristol outperforms every other city in the UK on this front with 4 in 10 of those in Bristol’s workforce holding a degree.
So far so good. Why, then, do I say the city faces deep problems? For me, three challenges stand out.
First, it is something of an understatement to say that the benefits of the city’s success have not been evenly shared. It is a city of deep inequalities. If we look at child poverty across the city we find a gigantic poverty gap with 5% of children in poverty in some wards and just under half in others. That’s a far more pronounced difference between affluent and deprived communities within a city than we see in places like Glasgow or Nottingham.
But to really get a sense of the challenge facing Bristol look at educational inequality. GCSE attainment for state schools in the city is slightly below the national average and this is mostly due to the low attainment of the poorest children. 25% of pupils on free-school meals in Bristol reach the usual benchmark of 5 good GCSEs including English and Maths, compared to 62% of non-poor pupils. That’s a big, ugly, 37% gap between the poor and the rest: only nine local authorities in the country have a larger one. Put simply non-poor pupils in Bristol do better than the national average, whereas the poor do worse.
This inequality at age 16 is maintained as young people progress. Just 13% of those on free-school meals in Bristol at GCSE progress onto higher education(and the gap between the poor and the rest in this regard has been getting larger in Bristol over time while it shrinks nationally). To put this in context, compare it to the London story. In Inner London half of the poorest kids achieved five good GCSEs including English and Maths. That’s not much lower than the overall score for all pupils in Bristol. And 42% of the poorest pupils in inner London go on to university. That’s three times as many as in Bristol. Let me repeat that: a poor child in London is three times more likely to progress to higher education than their counterpart in Bristol. And, no, it’s not just London: the 13% of poor children progressing to university compares to 30% in Birmingham and 25% in Manchester. Until this is turned around then any talk of improving social mobility in the city will be a pipe dream.
Even on wages — where Bristol performs better than average — there is still a lot of poverty-pay: one in five workers earn less than the (real) Living Wage. Moreover, like everywhere else in the UK, it has been a lost decade for workers. After the financial crisis average pay in Bristol collapsed all the way back to the level it was at in 2001. As of today it has climbed back to 2005 levels. It would be very surprising if pay returns to its 2009 peak before 2020.
If the first big challenge facing the city concerns inequality then I’d argue that a second issue concerns productivity. Bristol has its very own productivity puzzle — and it’s a worrying one. Now, in some ways that’s an odd thing to say. Bristol — and the South West region — performs better than large parts of the UK on this score and, historically at least, the city looked like a strong performer outside London. The puzzle is that since the financial crash Bristol’s productivity has been sliding backwards. It now stands at just 93% of the UK average (and bear in mind that this has occurred while national productivity has itself flat-lined).
The conundrum grows when we consider that Bristol very nearly matches London in terms of the high share of graduates in the workforce. Yet it resembles places like Darlington or North Lincolnshire in terms of productivity. That’s an odd combination. It should cause pause for thought within the city’s business community and invite questions about the utilisation of skills, along with the quality of infrastructure in the city.
Finally, there is — of course — the housing challenge. Again, Bristol is hardly alone in facing acute affordability issues. But the problem is particularly severe and getting worse. The average house price in Bristol has now passed £250,000. According to the ONS it has jumped 15% in the past year alone, 50% since 2010 and 255% since 2000. You don’t need me to tell you that this isn’t sustainable. To see why look at the ratio of house prices to average earnings. It leapt from around 5:1 in the early 2000s to over 9:1 today. Or to put it another way, house prices have grown more than 3 times faster than earnings in Bristol since 2002. And things are just as bad for renters. A household on a modest income in the private sector will typically spend at least a third of their total income on rent. That is what housing experts call ‘unaffordable’. And it puts Bristol in the top quarter of the most expensive places to rent in England.
Let me finish by saying that being a mayor of an incredible city like Bristol must be a remarkable privilege. But being a new mayor has to be both a luxury and a burden. It’s the former because you have the joy of being able to speak freely about the city’s challenges. And it’s the latter because you know that moment is a fleeting one and that soon all the city’s shortcomings will be hung around your neck if they aren’t addressed.
I hope and expect the new mayor will prioritise an agenda of ‘shared growth’. Doubtless he’ll already be familiar with the received views on the right recipe for a successful city. My argument is that some extra ingredients are required. I hope he won’t hold back in being candid about the scale of the challenge if the ‘shared’ part of the equation is to be made real. And he’ll need to be ambitious and innovative in his agenda for putting it right.
This is the basis of remarks made in response to the Inaugural Address of the Mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees.