Probably the most significant outcome from Tuesday’s mayoral hustings on transport was that none of the candidates were willing to offer their unreserved support for the various Bus Rapid Transport (BRT) schemes – and in particular the BRT2 scheme from the Long Ashton Park and Ride to the City Centre.
I have to confess that I am not completely surprised by this.
For some time now those responsible for promoting the scheme have been spending less time arguing the potential benefits of BRT2 and more time delivering a negative narrative, warning of the potential downsides of abandoning the scheme.
For example, we are told it would be damaging to Bristol’s reputation to abandon the scheme after so much time and effort has gone into its planning.
This is, of course, a flawed and illogical argument. The scheme has to be judged above all upon its merits as a public transport offering, not on the amount of money and effort expended on it so far.
If a dog is barking up the wrong tree, it doesn’t matter how long it has been barking, or how long it continues to bark, it is still the wrong tree.
If BRT2 is unable to deliver the type of step change in public transport provision needed for Bristol then the sooner we stop throwing money and effort into this money pit, the better.
Indeed any potential damage to Bristol’s reputation caused by abandoning the scheme has to be weighed up against the potential damage to future local public transport proposals if Bristol goes ahead with a critically flawed scheme.
Given that there has been such widespread criticism of BRT2, more often than not by knowledgeable individuals and respected organisations that, in normal circumstances, might be expected to be supportive of public transport proposals, it might be asked why the council is so insistent on pushing the scheme through?
I suspect that part of the problem is a lack of self-confidence within the existing power structure of the city.
When it comes to major infrastructure schemes, over the years Bristol has built up a dismal track record of repeated failure. Whilst other cities and towns have built tram systems, indoor arenas, concert halls, and, yes, football stadia, Bristol has largely failed to do so.
Each of these failures has sapped the morale of the city council. Incrementally they have caused the council to set its targets slightly lower and reduce its expectations of what it is capable of acheiving.
In my opinion, we have now reached the point where the council has become so desperate to finally deliver a major scheme that it is almost irrelevant whether the successful scheme is actually capable of fulfilling the role it is intended for. In this case that of a high quality public transport system.
Instead what has become important is getting the funding itself, any funding.
The means has become the end in itself.
Is this what Bristol has now become? An also-ran city, desperately grateful for the leftover crumbs from the funding cake whilst other more determinedly self-confident cities ensure they are there at the beginning when the cake is being cut and the sought after slices of investment are being handed out?
Bristol generates some £12billion of wealth every year, wealth that could be re-invested into the city and especially its less privileged areas. Instead much of this wealth flows out of the city and then forms a disproportionate part of the funding cake that Bristol has shown itself so incapable of competing for.
There are already discussions about how Bristol can fight to retain some of this wealth within the city, for example by retaining business rates, and/or via the use of the Bristol Pound.
However this will only allow Bristol to retain some of its wealth, and will not, on its own, give access to additional sources of investment.
As a result, if there is one thing, that any elected mayor will need to do, it is to ensure that Bristol sharpens its elbow and grabs its place at the top table – it has to fight for its fair share of the wealth its citizens have worked so hard to help create.
To do that successfully, the elected mayor will need to be ahead of the game, to know before our competitor cities which way the wind of government policy is blowing.
That includes knowing that the circumstances under which central government funding was allocated for the BRT2 scheme have now changed. Austerity was the name of the game when the BRT schemes had their funding approved, and drastic cuts to central government expenditure meant that Bristol and other cities had to radically reduce the amount of funding they were requesting from central government in order to be successful.
However, there are increasing indications of a new wave of investment, as the government begins to recognise that, indeed, you cannot cut your way out of a recession.
We cannot wait for a formal announcement that the government is adopting a Plan B for the economy. Such an announcement will never come – politicians do not say sorry and admit mistakes unless they are given absolutely no choice.
However, it is becoming clear, that one way or another, greater public investment in physical infrastructure, including transport projects, will be made available in the near future, and to thus suggest that central government will not support proposals for a more effective, more capable, and, yes, more expensive, public transport system for Bristol ignores all the signals coming out of Whitehall and Westminster.
Luckily for Bristol, when it matters, instead of the lack of confidence in Bristol’s capability repeatedly demonstrated by the Council, we will have an elected mayor, and we can only hope it will be an elected mayor ready to begin the process of lifting Bristol out of the shadows it has been in for so long, no longer willing to accept the lowest common denominator for our infrastructure, no longer grateful for the crumbs of comfort from the funding cake.
It is time for Bristol to stand up for itself again, and that requires self-confident leadership from the top.