When they finally arrived, Bristol’s election results signalled a big change for the city that made the national news.
Despite predictions that the mayoral contest was too close to call, voters gave an emphatic victory to Labour’s Marvin Rees. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn saw fit to travel to Bristol to congratulate his new mayor.
As I live outside Bristol, I didn’t vote in the mayoral elections. But I followed the contest with interest and was not surprised by Labour’s win after a drawn-out and sometimes tetchy contest.
On many measures, Rees inherits a city in better shape than in 2012 when independent George Ferguson became Bristol’s first elected mayor. It weathered the recession well and has the most productive economy outside London. Its Enterprise Zone in Bristol Temple Quarter is creating more jobs than any similar local scheme. And the arena project is becoming a reality, more than 20 years after it was first mooted.
These achievements should be recognised as a testament to Ferguson’s leadership, although many of his trenchant critics won’t see it that way.
But there are big challenges that Rees must address amongst the many pledges he made during the campaign.
Housing: *the* big challenge
Building the homes Bristol needs will be particularly challenging. Rees has pledged to set up a new council company to oversee the building of 2,000 new and affordable homes each year. That’s about 20 times more than the council is currently delivering. It is one of 10 pledges made by Rees on housing alone.
He has also promised to prioritise brownfield sites for housing, which is already being looked at by a Public Land Board. Many in the development industry say brownfield sites will not meet his housing ambitions. They say looking at the green belt, which makes up 40% of the West of England, is also needed. Other Conservative local authority leaders have a big say in that too. Some are strongly opposed to green belt development. The West of England’s Joint Spatial Plan, which will identify locations for 85,000 homes over the next 20 years, provides an important backdrop to this agenda.
The devolution deal on the table for the West of England aims to give the local authorities more control over housing. It would also attract £1bn in infrastructure investment. But it may not see the light of day because of the government’s desire to have a metro mayor overseeing the arrangement. Those who wish to see more homes built in the area will hope to see the deal agreed. Bristol’s mayor will be in a pivotal position to ensure that the deal doesn’t go to waste.
Pledges don’t build homes
The housing crisis has taken a generation to create and won’t be solved in a few years. The economics of housing, our obsession with home ownership and an under-regulated private rental system has set the template for our housing crisis.
Bristol is not alone in facing this issue, and can look to other city regions for examples of where it’s being tackled.
Ferguson was right when he said during the campaign that there’s no single solution or organisation that will tackle this issue. He was heckled at a recent housing hustings event when he suggested that we needed to ‘tear up the rule book’ to get more housing built, more quickly. Bristol likes to think of itself as a city that does things differently. It has an opportunity to do that with housing.
Meanwhile, new models are emerging, giving councils opportunities to borrow, use their sites and set up ventures to deliver homes. The new ‘rules’, whatever they may be, can’t come soon enough for the thousands who are priced out of Bristol’s success.
Who knows, if Marvin Rees succeeds, he may even be liked on social media. Here’s hoping anyway; I wish him every success.