I’ve been fortunate to see devolution take shape in cities across England over the last 20 years.
That experience leads me to believe that local people, not Westminster, should have the tools to lead this change. Although Marvin Rees last year received a mandate to serve as mayor until 2024, Bristol has further to go before seeing the full benefits of devolution.
Context matters here. Although I’ve clocked hundreds of posts across Twitter and news feeds, this isn’t easy to see amidst claim and counterclaim.
I don’t have a vote in the referendum, but I am interested in its outcome as someone who works here and employs people living in the city. My thoughts come from that perspective, as someone who’s worked with the council and the offices of both elected mayors since 2010.
Work at home (if you can). Get back to work (sorry, the office). Forget that, work at home please. Go back, gradually and carefully. Read the guidance. Businesses must work out what’s best. It’s on you. Fingers crossed!
These phrases illustrate the chaos surrounding England’s official office working guidance during the pandemic. I exaggerate in places. But each statement reflects a government position at a certain moment. Sometimes, ministers even took different positions on the same day.
Navigating this is tricky, especially if you’re not expert in workplace design, occupational health or HR. I’m more used to writing about 600-acre spaces than 600 sq ft ones, and I struggle to visualise how a shell will look when kitted out and occupied. “How many desks can you get in here again?” was a stock phrase used during recent forays into Bristol to check potential new office space.
What knowledge I have is shaped by conversations with helpful agents and dozens of viewings over recent years. Much of this was during COVID, which detonated drastic changes to everyone’s living and working patterns. Once, I nearly agreed a three-year lease on office space before government guidance shifted (again) to work from home. Not signing saved us from paying for a space we couldn’t use.
The process feels fraught with uncertainty and confusion. I know I’m not alone in struggling to find something that works for us post-COVID, as the environment around us remains in flux.
From this muddled standpoint, I’ve watched with interest as people on all sides of the vexed office debate state their case with certainty. As I write from Scotland (that’s flexible location working for you), respective positions around this debate appear to have hardened. Whether it’s work from home or return to the office, it’s taken a binary either/or context.
Although the West of England has had an incredibly tough year, it’s still one of the country’s best places to live and work by many measures.
Covering areas around Bristol and Bath, the region has the spirit, ingenuity and amazing places that are unmistakably its own. It’s also the most economically productive region outside London. But it’s the region’s human qualities that make it special for so many of us.
Business West touched on this point in its recent manifesto for the new mayor, who will lead an organisation covering Bristol, Bath and North East Somerset and South Gloucestershire council areas. Full disclosure: I have worked with some of these organisations at Social. None are clients at the time of writing this.
Just over a year ago, we left our offices to start working from home – all together, at once. I wrote then about how our culture would help us through the tough times ahead. So, it’s proved to be.
In the year that’s followed my emotional trudge from our Bristol office, we’ve invested considerable time and energy in supporting each other through lockdown,
That support, implicit in our Life Happens company value, enabled us to grow during this most challenging of years. In the South West, we’ve doubled in size and are working on high profile, incredibly exciting accounts.
Although it’s been breathless at times, we’re proud of what we’ve achieved. Our team promoted high quality places on sites with capacity for more than 12,000 homes last year. We’ve put the £85m regeneration of Gloucester city centre on a national platform. We’ve engaged communities on the future of Portishead town centre, drawing feedback from hundreds of people in the process. All this and more during lockdown.
Watching Sunday’s scenes of rioting in Bristol gain traction across the world brought home a mix of feelings about a city and people I have barely seen over the last year.
I know we were not alone in our dismay and anger at what happened. Many have said the scenes did not represent the city they know and experience up close.
Everyone’s experiences of Bristol are different, it’s true. For all the ‘best places to live’ write-ups, challenges around deprivation, equality of opportunity and housing are real and have terrible consequences for those at the sharp end. There are many, many good people who have worked tirelessly this year (and long before that) to address these challenges. They deserve our gratitude, not sniping from the side-lines.
We are proud of our connections with Bristol and of our colleagues who work and live here with their partners and families. We were struck by the response of thousands of Bristolians who appeared to speak as one this week in saying: this is not who we are.
We wanted to do something to capture this sentiment. So we were pleased to be asked to create a statement from Bristol City Leaders group, which was released on 25 March and is included below.
Lockdown has provided us with the biggest behaviour change programme we have ever seen. It would be a real travesty if we went back to ‘business as usual’ without locking in some of the benefits achieved during lockdown.
Wherever you’ve worked over the last three months, most of us can agree that lockdown has been challenging. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that its impact will be far-reaching and long-lasting.
But, as the West of England emerges from lockdown with the rest of the country, it feels right to reflect on some positive things to emerge from this crisis that are worth holding on to.
Businesses at the West of England Initiative’s latest meeting heard from those leading the local conversation on how we travel about lockdown’s impact on traffic congestion, air quality and carbon emissions. The findings are stark:
Peak time traffic levels in Bristol are said to be around 40% lower than pre-lockdown levels, although are back on the increase.
Bus passenger numbers are reported to be at around 13% of ordinary levels.
Air quality in cities is markedly improved as traffic has fallen.