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I was told to expect the Mayor of Bristol, George Ferguson, to appear in his signature red trousers. I was not disappointed.  The Mayor appeared on the first of our three panel sessions in Bristol and was candid in setting out the issues facing the city and its wider region.  He was followed by 11 other city leaders, drawn from business, academia, local government and the public and third sectors.  This was the second of the City Growth Commission’s formal evidence hearings, and the setting of the Lantern room in the Old Bristol Council House – with its beautiful domed roof – befitted the occasion.

Jim O’Neill, the Commission Chair, was flanked by Tony Travers, Ben Lucas, Alexandra Jones and I as we explored our main themes: What economic levers would the city like at its disposal to enable growth? What governance arrangements would be needed to support this? And how should public service reform be integrated into the city’s wider growth strategy?

The witnesses representing Bristol had slightly different take on these issues than witnesses from other cities. The Commission asked if this is because the city is the only net contributor to the Exchequer outside of London; and whether Bristol’s geographic distance from other major cities (compared to Core Cities in the north of England, for example) is a source of economic strength, with the city benefiting from an agglomeration effect. While the evidence is not clear and views amongst the witnesses were mixed, most agreed that the Commission – with its focus on city regional growth – needed to consider the definition of each of those terms, and why they were important.

‘City’ – Bristol city has a small administrative geography but its wider economic area extends into North Somerset and South Gloucestershire.  Development within the ‘city’ will need to be mostly in these areas, especially affordable housing – which was identified as pressing problem.

Regional’ – One of the Commissioners asked whether Bristol considered itself to be the ‘capital of the region’.  The response was ‘which region?’ and ‘it depends who you ask’.  One witness said that Tewksbury, on the north edge of the Bristol travel-to-work-area (TTWA) was closer to the Scottish border than Lands’ End.  The South West is not dominated by Bristol, and the city can pose as much of a threat as an opportunity within its wider region.

‘Growth’ – “Would [Bristol] be willing to forego growth for greater happiness?” asked Tony Travers during a discussion of what it meant for places to grow and thrive.  Liz Zeidler, co-founder of Bristol’s Happy City initiative and co-chair Bristol Green Capital city, turned the question on its head – “Should we be willing to forego greater happiness for growth?” The need for inclusive and sustainable growth was raised by many of the witnesses.

This article was originally published by the City Growth Commission.

A summary of social media coverage of the Hearing is available on storify - City Growth Commission Hearing (2)


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