Comment: Bristol’s alternative world view could reap rewards

By Paul Swinney

Bristol prides itself on being different to other cities. The home town of graffiti artist cum social commentator Bansky, the Bristol Pound and a thriving community of independent retailers, many of the city's residents value the counter-culture that exists in the city.

Now Bristol can also say that it is the only major city out of the ten that voted to say yes to the introduction of a directly elected mayor. So what impact will this decision, and the elections being held tomorrow, have on the most economically successful large English city outside London?

It seems likely that the decision to go with a directly elected mayor will bring with it a significant improvement in the freedoms that local government has to support its economy. Cities around the world demonstrate that a mayor can make a big difference to local economies, with the mayor of London a shining example of what can be achieved with such a city governance model. He chairs multiple London-wide boards that are responsible for economic development, such as Transport for London and the Local Enterprise Partnership. He sets the London Plan, which sets out a city wide strategy to support economic growth. Most clearly of all, he acts as a figurehead for the capital, not just for the rest of the UK but around the world. Investors know who to speak to; citizens know who to hold accountable. When asked to name the leader of London, surely few would struggle to answer.

These advantages suggest it is a shame that the majority of our largest cities, with the exception of Liverpool, have decided not to follow London's example. Most of these cities lag both the national average and their European counterparts on a range of economic indicators – although, again, Bristol is the exception. The introduction of a mayor, and the new powers that could come with it, could have supported many of these cities to further improve their economic growth.

Their loss may well be Bristol's gain. But what should the economic priorities of the Bristol mayor be, whoever is elected to the position on Thursday? At first glance it is difficult to spot a fundamental weakness in Bristol's economy. Average wages is one of the few indicators where the city lags the UK, being £30 less per week than the national average in 2011, despite the city's highly skilled population.

This suggests that a greater push is required to support higher paid job creation in the city – previous research by the Centre has encountered a feeling amongst certain parts of Bristol's business community that this hasn't been high enough up the priority list. Transport will be a key factor in this, linking Bristol's key employment sites to its residential areas. A flexible approach to planning will also be crucial, so that businesses who want to expand and house builders who want to build new homes are allowed to do so in a swift and efficient manner.

The importance of these priorities also highlights a challenge facing the new mayor of Bristol, whoever that is. While the mayoralty will cover the local authority of Bristol only, Bristol's economy is not constrained to these administrative boundaries. The city's labour market footprint stretches out to Wotton-under-Edge 16 miles north of Bristol local authority and to Weston-Super-Mare 18 miles south.  This means that, unlike London, where the mayor has direction over 33 local authorities, the Bristol mayor will have to enter into negotiations with neighbouring authorities over key economic policies such as transport and housing provision. The difficulty of reaching a consensus over tough issues such as integrated transport in recent years highlights how challenging this is likely to remain; working well with neighbouring areas must be a priority for the new mayor.

The new mayor will also need to work hard to clarify what extra powers an English city mayor will get. Lack of clarity is likely to have been one of the main reasons for the resounding 'no to mayors' vote in most cities back in May. But this presents a real opportunity for the Bristol mayor. The government has shown that it is willing to devolve powers down to a city level through City Deals – a negotiation that England's largest cities have entered into with government to ask for more powers to adapt policy to the needs of the local economy. The new Bristol mayor should grasp this opportunity to ask Whitehall for extra powers where he or she feels that a better job could be done if certain powers sat within the mayoralty, exactly as London has done over the last 12 years.

Jobs and growth have to be the short-term priorities of the mayor, which means working closely with local businesses and the Local Enterprise Partnership, and also ensuring that Bristol's City Deal is a success, with its focus on attracting investment and improving skills. 

Over the longer term, as the mayor demonstrates the impact that they can have on the city economy, they should also seek to work with neighbours to augment the mayor's political coverage to one that matches the economy of the city, not an artificial boundary on a map. For those outer areas worried that this will mean too much focus on the city at the expense of more rural areas, it may be worth remembering that the first time Boris Johnson was elected mayor of London, it was on the basis of votes in the suburbs rather than the city centre.

Bristol is a vital cog in UK plc. With the strong stewardship of its new mayor it could cement its position as England's strongest performing city outside of London. Thursday marks an important juncture in the city's history. Whoever is elected, the mayoralty is likely to provide significant scope to support the city and its residents to prosper in the future.

Paul Swinney is an economist at the Centre for Cities

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