News / Politics

Marvin Rees’ State of the City address 2020

By marvin rees, Wednesday Oct 14, 2020

This is the full text of the speech delivered by Bristol mayor Marvin Rees during his annual State of the City address at the Watershed on October 14.

It’s been a humbling year.

In the modern age, when we’ve looked at any crisis, we’ve generally had the view that someone, somewhere could solve it, if they chose to. We’ve been of the mind that CEOs, politicians or scientists could make decisions to end poverty, end hunger, house people or even stop wars.

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I think this might be the first time in the modern era that we’ve had to confront the limits of human power in facing up to the fact that there is no individual or group anywhere who can just solve this, even if they wanted to. I have three main reflections on the year:

First, Covid is testing every system we depend on. Our education system, our food system, our transport system, our democratic system, our economic system. And while we have our heroes who have fought to keep things going, the systems themselves have been found wanting. School and exams have been missed, jobs have been lost. People have gone hungry. Transport has ground to a halt. Elections were cancelled and we are on the cusp of the deepest economic depression since the 1930s.

Second, Covid is not indiscriminate. Viruses get disproportionate opportunity to attack vulnerable individuals through weaknesses in our systems. It has exposed our inequalities. It’s those in the lower socio-economic groups, in overcrowded housing, front line jobs, black people, Asian people, poor people, those with pre-existing health conditions, who have been hit hardest by Covid and the consequences of the lockdown. It has exposed the national weakness resulting from the political and economic system in general and ten years of austerity and the disinvestment in society in particular. This not least because it has left public organisations, local government and public health under equipped for this shock.

Third, Covid is a crisis that is forcing us to rethink who and HOW we are. For some, Covid will become a point of difference, division and suspicion. For others it will drive them to think about our interdependence. Think back to those early reports from Wuhan. If you are like me, you cared but it was one of THOSE crises “over there”. I think back to the Global Parliament of Mayors conference we hosted in Bristol in 2018. Nearly 100 Mayors, their staff, the UN, World Health Organisation and others. We focussed on three priorities: Urban security and Migration made sense to me. The third was city preparedness for Pandemics. Even then, to me, pandemics felt like a distant threat, something for mayors from the global East and South to plan for and address. Today the threat that was over there is causing pain, loss and death for families over here.

I want to begin by expressing my sympathy and condolences to all those families who have experienced loss.

I think particularly about those who have lost loved ones and not been able to hold the funerals, families would have wished and then having to grieve in isolation, alone.

And the losses we have faced haven’t just been about death. Many people have lost jobs, personal relationships and their financial security. Others have lost mental health and fallen into depression.

Domestic violence has increased. Calls to childline have risen. People have lost their homes as places of safety.

In a recent comment Prince Charles warned: “There has never been a time as uniquely challenging as the present, when the pandemic has left perhaps another million young people needing urgent help to protect their futures. The task ahead is unquestionably vast, but it is not insurmountable.”

The consequences will not disappear the moment we get a medical breakthrough. The legacy of this will be with us for many years. We will not be able to heal all the hurts. But we can commit to being a city in which healing and hope is possible.

I want to say thank you to those many people who are helping make that healing, hopeful Bristol a reality. From the medics who risk their lives to deal with the virus, to the community organisations who have distributed food, to businesses and unions who have tried to keep people in work, safe. I talked earlier about Covid testing our systems. Something that has stood up to the test is society. Thousands of people volunteered through the Can Do Bristol website. Many thousands more set up their own groups or simply took care of family and neighbours. And we tasted something special and spiritually fulfilling as we turned out together to clap for our carers.

There are many, many people and organisations I could name. But I will pull out a few:

Our nurses and doctors, NHS support staff, pharmacists, paramedics and ambulance crews and all the public health professionals. I want to mention Caring in Bristol and the Cheers Drive project.

Our care workers looking after people in their homes and our care homes.

Our foster parents – those who had to shield AND those who came forward in response to our appeal for more families for Bristol children.

Bristol’s cleaners, in hospitals, health centres and in all buildings. We now know how critical they are.

Our hoteliers, who worked with us to provide shelter to our homeless

Retail workers who kept local shops and supermarkets open and delivery drivers who kept shops and homes supplied.

Of course I need to mention the Bristol Food Union, Feeding Bristol, Bristol foodbanks and the Hunger Programme volunteers like the Dawa-te-islami charity, a mosque based foodbank, and particularly the work of James Edwards, Projects and partnerships manager of the Bristol City Robins Foundation and Adam Tutton, chief executive of the Bristol Rovers Community Trust.

There are individual examples from all over the city – like Mr Chattha who runs the Fulford Fish Bar in Hartcliffe. His business had to close for the lockdown but before doing so, he offered ‘fish and chip lots’ to people in the local community who were struggling. I want to celebrate USDAW’s campaign to protect retail workers from abuse, threats and violence and thank the Community Meals team, and our National Food Service.

Our drivers – in Bristol Community Transport, First West and Stagecoach South West who kept public transport moving. To our taxi drivers, many of whom became delivery drivers as we sought to get emergency food out to people.

We owe so much to our teachers and school support staff for getting kids back to school and meeting the educational and pastoral needs of children when they were home under lockdown.

Parents, who have balanced family life, home schooling and work.

Also our postal and logistics workers. From Royal Mail to Amazon, they have all literally continued to deliver.

We owe huge thanks to our community centres and the people that work in them. These people and places open their doors to often isolated people and keep communities together. Places like Lockleaze Community Orchard project & The Vench, as well as their near neighbours, Southmead Development Trust & Greenway Centre. And, the volunteers of the Ardagh Community Trust, breathing life back to community places that were in decline.

If we didn’t know it already, we do now… that our voluntary community sector is critical to our resilience. People like Off The Record and One25 reaching people in ways that many of the big providers cannot or will not. The same goes for organisations like Empire Fighting Chance, transforming young lives through boxing and who all found innovative ways to keep their support going.

The volunteers working in community media, Ujima and BCFM in particular and the critical part you played working with us to get the Covid messages to people too easily missed. And the mainstream media who supported our key public health messages, particularly Radio Bristol.

Bristol waste crews, who continued to collect our rubbish and clean our streets

Our Park Services teams and park volunteers, our Housing Responsive Repairs team and tenant support groups.

And I want to thank our cemeteries and crematoria teams who have stepped up in incredibly difficult times…..

Together, we have lived, worked and cared for others in a way that has kept people safe and supported those in vulnerable situations.

I must be clear about the scale of the challenge facing us. It is significant.

We have the scientific challenge of fighting the virus itself, protecting the NHS and the search for a vaccine. But we have to face up to the reality that a vaccine will not come down and cover us with an impenetrable shield that allows us to return to life as we once knew it. We need to prepare now for new normals. The virus will continue to be with us, mutating into new strains, targeting the most vulnerable.

And we face the consequences of the lockdown measures put in place to contain the spread of the virus including what is likely to be the deepest economic depression in decades.

The employment rate in Bristol in recent years has been the highest of British Core Cities and 1% above the national average. But from March to August, unemployment had more than doubled to 4.5%.

By August, 70 000 people of eligible employment in Bristol, were furloughed. That’s 30% of employees. That was a third higher than at the end of May. It was the highest amongst 16-25 year olds where 44% of eligible employees in that age group were furloughed.

Bristol’s economy has at least 8000 fewer jobs.

A recent Business West survey showed that 37% of firms are looking to reduce labour costs, even as they were accessing the national furlough scheme and only 6% of companies are recruiting compared to 15.7% at the same time last year.

The employment of young people in Bristol is heavily concentrated in the retail, hospitality and food sectors, with around 40% of young people in employment in our city, in these industries. That is double the rate for all ages in employment – in the very sectors at the biggest risk.

Looking at the furlough numbers can guide our understanding of projected jobs at risk.

In the region:

  • 78% of workers in the accommodation and food services sectors were furloughed.
  • 72% in the arts, entertainment and recreation sector
  • 63% in construction
  • 42% in the wholesale, retail and motor trades sectors – huge numbers of jobs that will undoubtedly be at risk in a prolonged recession.
  • 4.5% of the UK workforce is employed in the Cultural and Creative Industries. That’s over 10,000 workers in Bristol.
  • 70% of those are, or have been, furloughed and many are therefore at risk.
  • 56% of Film & TV production companies have cancelled planned work. Events and festivals have lost 11.5m visitors nationally.
  • Average combined weekly loss of incomes across the city’s cultural organisations range between £315,000 and £375,000 with predictions that many organisations will have exhausted unrestricted reserves by the end of Autumn.
  • The combined economic impact on our museums is over £35m lost

Nearly two-thirds of festival and event organisers were forced to cancel planned events, 42 of the large outdoor/indoor festival and live events who responded identified a £5million loss due to cancellations in summer 2020, with a further £6.5million impact on the wider supply chain.

There has been a 40% reduction in civil aerospace orders and jobs already lost in the north of the city in that sector. The retail sector alone in Bristol is forecast to cut 1,600 jobs during this year.

We anticipate inequality widening. It is the most vulnerable and working people who will take the biggest hit from the downturn. And it is they who will be least well placed to benefit from any economic upturn when it comes. Hardship will be particularly pronounced in lower super output areas in neighbourhoods from Hartcliffe to Hillfields, from Lawrence Hill to Lockleaze and Lawrence Weston.

Further and rising infection rates, a winter spike alongside the usual winter pressures on the NHS, will build pressure on our health systems. We face business failures and rising unemployment, a return to evictions, burnout of workers in public services and schools, a spike in mental health pressures and maybe a more dramatic public reaction along with greater community tensions and rising crime.

And as need in the city rises, we in Bristol are joining other local authorities across the country in challenging national government to face up to the reality that the amount of financial support they are providing is not enough to enable us to meet the scale of need. Government have put £10 billion into the problematic national test and trace system, much of it going on contracts with private firms like Serco and G4S. This amounts to more than 100 times Public Health England’s £90 million annual budget for infectious diseases and 25 times the £400million divided amongst the 343 English local authorities to spend on test, trace contain and outbreak plans. Bristol is actually facing a £14million hit this year and £22million next, of funds not covered by the government.

And so we find ourselves in the middle of a pandemic, on the cusp of an economic depression, with a model of national governance that holds power tightly in Westminster and Whitehall who are looking increasingly likely to add a no-deal Brexit to our uncertainty. If there is one thing I hope government is learning – it’s that; the huge resource and expertise available to them, if they work effectively with local leaders and place shapers, in towns and cities across the country.

At the City Gathering in the summer of 2018, Bristol was presented with a plaque declaring us a City of Hope. As with all such declarations, they are as much about the possibility that is in us and what we want to be – as they are about what we actually are. Hope isn’t merely an attitude, belief or status; it is something we continually work to create.

I have often cited the proverb: ‘Suffering produces perseverance, perseverance character and character hope.’

The suffering we are facing CAN be a step toward hope. But the movement from suffering to perseverance is not guaranteed. Without support and leadership, suffering can pull people and communities apart. It’s our job to fight for the investment in lives that mean we come through these trials stronger, more resilient, more sustainable, more together than we were before. That is how we build back better. And it takes thoughtful, good policy.

In an article in The Lancet, Richard Horton, the Lancet’s Editor-in-Chief, and a former student of Bristol Grammar school, argues we need to develop our understanding of COVID. He suggests we are not suffering merely from a pandemic but a syndemic in which two categories of diseases are interacting: the communicable disease, COVID-19, and the non-communicable diseases that cluster around poverty and inequality such as cardio vascular disease and obesity. The aggregation of these diseases on a back ground of inequality exacerbates the adverse effects of both.

As Richard went on to say: “The most important consequence of seeing COVID-19 as a syndemic is to underline its social origins. The vulnerability of older citizens; Black, Asian, and minority ethnic communities; and key workers who are commonly poorly paid with fewer welfare protections points to a truth so far barely acknowledged—namely, that no matter how effective a treatment or protective a vaccine, the pursuit of a purely biomedical solution to COVID-19 will fail. Unless governments devise policies and programmes to reverse profound disparities, our societies will never be truly COVID-19 secure.”

He continued: “Our societies need hope. The economic crisis that is advancing towards us will not be solved by a drug or a vaccine. Nothing less than national revival is needed. Approaching COVID-19 as a syndemic will invite a larger vision, one encompassing education, employment, housing, food, and environment. Viewing COVID-19 only as a pandemic excludes such a broader but necessary prospectus.”

This speaks to the warning that we and other local authorities have made to government since the beginning, that this crisis is short changed if we only measure it in terms of NHS capacity and ICU beds.

This is a social crisis and unless we deal with the underlying weaknesses in our society, we will be constantly vulnerable. Moreover, that vulnerability will be with us as we move into a future where shocks, be they economic, environmental or socio-political are predicted to be more likely.

The themes Horton points out resonate with the foundations of our approach in Bristol. We will continue in our commitment to deliver them:

On employment, with Bristol partners, we have developed our Economic Renewal strategy and we will deliver on it. We must increase the city’s resilience and sustainability alongside enhancing the social and economic wellbeing of every community. Our priorities include working with business and unions with the aim of protecting existing employment levels, building skills and pathways to work for young people, where the impact is currently being felt most profoundly and create opportunities for employment, especially by supporting green industries. We will support business, promote digital innovation and work to attract new and established businesses into the city, in the way we did with Channel 4, now up and running and employing Bristolians. And we have allocated capital funds to a COVID Response fund; £4 million will be available this year and £6 million next year to support recovery.

We are asking government to frontload investment in our green infrastructure, to bring forward funding for infrastructure, to bring forward jobs and support the local supply chain. While also allowing us to benefit from the decarbonisation of economic growth from now. Investment in Temple Quarter will bring homes, jobs and a renovated train station. Western Harbour will bring over 2000 homes in a sustainable location. A transport plan will bring new and reopened stations, more biogas buses and a low carbon mass transit system that will transform people movement in the city. We will rebuild our flood defences for the 21st century and beyond; and renew the city’s bridges and harbour walls. We will also continue to make Bristol attractive to investors in the UK and around the world.

Along with former Prime Minister, Gordon Brown and other Labour mayors and leaders, we have laid out the need for a clear programme of job retention schemes and to use this opportunity to invest in a greener economy. To invest in transitions to lower-carbon operations, transport and machinery replacement schemes. And to invest in advanced research and development to retrofit and invest in new technologies. I have written to the government to request a boost for job retention schemes in the aerospace industry and other key sectors. Along with my colleagues from the core cities network and the city’s trade union leaders, we have asked this government to do more to protect jobs, support key industries and do as much as governments in other European countries.

And we want to deliver decent quality jobs. We have now been officially recognised by the Living Wage Foundation as a Living Wage City. This is more than 1750 people earning the real living wage, reducing the risk of in work poverty for hundreds of families.

We are driving our economy by coming together with local authorities and businesses from Cardiff and Newport, from Swansea to Swindon, Gloucester to Bath – to launch the Western Gateway. It gives us a place at the government’s table alongside the Northern Powerhouse and Midlands Engine.

We need central government to back local and city governments to find more of the answers. The government references leveling up but continues to drive a Westminster led agenda, underfunding city and local government that undermines the possibility of an inclusive recovery.

The impact of Covid-19 on our economics and fiscal outcomes is huge – now we have to invest in communities, in sustainable led industry and in social and economic infrastructure. As has recently been said by the Centre for Progressive Policy: “Having borrowed at record levels, now we must invest in local economies and local institutions that that can deliver rapid, systemic and sustainable change”.

With the devolution white paper delayed and a lack of commitment to localising solutions when that is clearly required, I echo the comments of the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, who said: “The new normal of living with covid-19 will only be sustainable –or even endurable – if we challenge our addiction to centralisation and go back to an age old principle; only do centrally what must be done centrally”.

On housing, the virus has already had a dramatic impact on our biggest existing challenges. To have a home is the single biggest determinant of life outcomes. Both the Brexit uncertainty and the COVID crisis has had a significant impact on the construction sector but we know the housing crisis is sharper than ever and we will return to our stretching targets and continue to build homes including affordable homes and council houses.

I am proud of our delivery on housing. We have converted the council to a delivery organisation from a standing start, and the numbers speak for themselves, as do the cranes on the city’s horizon.

We have built just short of 7000 homes since 2016, with around 1000 affordable.

And we have built up a council housing programme of over 1,200 homes: the largest council housing development programme in this city for over 35 years. When we add the pipeline of projects our housing company is working on, this rises to almost 2,500 council homes to be built in Bristol.

The days I visit people in their new home, often the first time a family has had a quality, stable home, are the best days in the job. Knowing we have delivered security, health and better life outcomes for real people gives the job meaning.

That’s why building homes remains a key focus.

Quality affordable homes are essential to building an inclusive city. The kind of homes we build and where we put them will be the biggest determinant on our environmental footprint, reducing our carbon emissions and impact on nature and wildlife.

And on Covid, Building homes that build communities means people will live within the kind of social support networks that we have seen are crucial to our resilience and our ability to overcome shocks.

On education, we are delivering on thousands of work experience placements, continuing the Reading City project, keeping libraries open. We are supporting the Commission on race equality to increase diversity of teachers in the classroom and increasing spend for children with special educational needs and disabled children, expanding classroom spaces and building new schools.

On food, tackling child hunger has remained a key focus as one of my core 2016 pledges. We have delivered with partners in Feeding Bristol and other schemes, set out our ambition to achieve Going for Gold standard and are exploring plans for food growing schemes in every ward to support sustainability and tackle food poverty.

On environment, we are working with partners through the Environment Board to deliver our climate change response plan. Accelerating our work to complete pedestrianisation of the old city, a bus gate at Bristol Bridge and closure of Baldwin Street to through traffic are steps towards cleaner air and healthier and more vibrant retail and entertainment led, city centre areas. Rather than expand the simplistic and outdated residents Parking Zones, we are working with communities towards liveable streets, improving the public realm, enhancing public transport and active travel. We are seeking more powers to tackle solid fuel burners, and polluting construction equipment.

As the city continues to grow, we must also improve our transport infrastructure. Changing the way we manage ‘through traffic’ and working with the city on travel change and shifting working patterns. We will clean our air without financial penalties on the very households and businesses who need financial support – and who need to be able to access jobs now and in the future. And we will deliver against Bristol’s transport plan, with the bus deal and the strategic outline business case for the mass transit by next spring.

We have taken key steps towards enhancing our lives by reversing dramatic declines in wildlife and restoring the natural environment. Along with the environment board, Avon Wildlife Trust has led on design of a city ecological emergency strategy.

That commits to 30% of land to be managed for the benefit of wildlife, to halve the use of pesticides, improve water quality and to work with communities and business to reduce the consumption of products that undermine the health and habitat of wildlife.

We will build recovery but we will be alive to the risk of a dash for growth subjecting us to a growth strategy that is values free. We cannot afford that. We need to build back with our values, to deliver a new normal that has inclusion and sustainability at its core. We need to plan and build our future against the likelihood of future shocks, while reducing the contribution we make to the likelihood of future shocks.

That is why we have put the economic recovery strategy, climate strategy and the ecological strategy at the heart of our planning. We built these strategies to deliver the sustainable development goals. We have a strong local commitment to tackle global challenges through local initiatives and collaboration. Through the global goals, we will harness the private, public, voluntary and academic sectors in solutions. Poverty, hunger, public health, wellbeing, education, equality, clean air and water, clean energy, decent jobs, innovation, sustainable inclusive growth, climate, wildlife and habitats, justice, partnerships – the sustainable development goals underpin the way we work and will underpin our recovery, our journey to hope. The global goals will allow us to contribute to the conversations happening now in the global network of cities, stepping up to lead, while national governments flounder.

Moreover, it’s our judgement that investment will flow to the most resilient cities – those cities that are least vulnerable to climate shocks, floods, economic collapse and social disorder. And investors will gravitate toward green growth opportunities and all the reputational advantages that will bring in addition to the financial returns they seek.

We have set out our city plan as a roadmap for the future, led by the sustainable development goals, recognising inter-dependency, acknowledging that tackling poverty must go hand in hand with improving health and education, reducing inequality, stimulating growth and tackling climate change.

My final message tonight is this: This crisis can only be overcome by the city coming together; our citizens and organisations

We must recognise this as a syndemic. We must tackle the social determinants of health and inequality as well as the bio-medical determinants of health.

We must come to terms with the fact that the virus will be part of our lives for the foreseeable future. We must learn to adapt to the new normals; we will need to design and build covid secure environments and learn and adopt covid safe behaviours.

There will be no certainty from the top and so we must familiarise ourselves with the principles of how covid is passed on from one person to another and allow this knowledge to shape our behaviour, to keep ourselves and others safe.

And I want to reflect once more on our commitment to be a city of hope. It is in our One City Plan. It’s in BCC’s corporate strategy. It is one of our core commitments and we will hold strong to that commitment.

Marvin Rees is the elected mayor of Bristol

Read more: Marvin Rees’ State of the City address 2019

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