Can the West of England’s new mayor tackle its collaboration challenge?

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.  

Although many may not realise it, residents can decide this week who leads the organisaton representing the West of England on the political stage. Bristolians can vote on Thursday alongside electing their local councillors, Bristol’s mayor and Avon and Somerset’s Police and Crime Commissioner. 

‘Super Thursday’ presents an opportunity for candidates to lead a region that needs to make its case clearly.  

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.

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My three most read blogs of 2020

Three balloons

Well, that was a year, wasn’t it!? Although I won’t be sorry to see the end of 2020, it’s brought what’s important into sharper focus.

COVID was immensely challenging, and continues to be. Brexit is distressing, but I have come to terms with it and hope we can start to move on from the sniping. Plate-spinning was relentless and exhausting. I’ve missed people. I can’t wait to see family, friends, colleagues and clients again. And I feel encouraged by a growing willingness to rethink how we live, work, travel and consume stuff.

I’ve written more regularly on this blog and for other titles in 2020, after a couple of years when I wrote very little. Along with daily exercise and music, it’s kept me clear headed and in reasonably good spirits. I will hold onto those habits in 2021.

I’m pleased by the level of engagement in the blogs and am grateful to everyone who’s taken the time to read them this year. I hope you’ve found them useful if you have. Below are the three most read posts from the last year. Thank you to everyone who took the time to read, share or comment on these and other posts. It means a lot.

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Businesses can steer us away from Carmageddon

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.

Ann O’Driscoll, North Bristol Suscom.

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.
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Thoughts from #SevernGrowthSummit: no ‘powerhouse’ needed

As business events go, the Severn Growth Summit at Celtic Manor was high profile judging by the response it generated.

I was one of about 350 people to attend the conference, which looked at how government can and businesses improve the economies around the West of England, Cardiff and Newport.

Welsh Secretary and Vale of Glamorgan MP Alun Cairns used the recent decision to abolish tolls on the Severn Bridge to press the case for a Western Powerhouse to drive growth across the areas. The comms teams should be delighted with the coverage this generated. I’ll come back to the powerhouse theme shortly.

There is more than a touch of symbolism to the tolls going. For those who use the bridge every day, it’s said by JLL’s Chris Sutton to be worth an extra £1,500 a year. There are 25m journeys made across the bridge each year and thousands of people use it on their daily commute. It’s a good example of how government action can make working between the three cities easier and more successful.

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Devolution: people care if they’re aware

The West of England’s devolution deal was rubber stamped last night after months of discussion by local leaders.

The agreement unlocks around £1bn in investment in housing, transport and skills. Most people would regard these as important issues that should be locally controlled.

Despite this and the welcome statements that will follow, last night’s response to the news seemed muted.

Councillors in Bristol expressed concerns that the 2,000 responses the recent consultation generated should have been much higher.

The Bristol Post reported these concerns alongside the question: does anyone care?

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Collaboration: more than a buzzword

Calls for ‘collaboration’ across the housing sector are hitting high levels. I have attended conferences recently at which panelists have insisted that collaboration is key to our future. At one event covering areas ranging from the performance of office buildings to the future of cities, speakers used the phrase six times in an hour.

Articles and blog posts stressing its importance are abundant. Google ‘collaboration and housing’ to see for yourself. And local and national government call for a collaborative approach from employees and partners. This can sometimes feel like a call for inspiration.

Meaning of collaboration

In an era of networks, for an industry that has thrived on partnership working, this makes sense. The challenges facing the sector are too big for any organisation to face alone. Those that work together stand a better chance of success.

It is difficult for anyone who works in the sector to argue against this sentiment. But defining good practice in this area – let along making it work – is more challenging. Statements like ‘collaboration is key’ are often used without any sign of how this could happen.

Collaboration between organisations frequently misses the input of the communities or people affected by what they are trying to achieve. And conflict seems built into the system, with some groups feeling their views are ignored. When this happens, positions become entrenched and delivery can grind to a halt.

If we are to benefit from a collaborative approach, there needs to be wide understanding of what good collaboration looks like. And organisations must prepare to change mindsets and structures to embrace it.

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