Just been clearing out some of my old paperwork when I came across this letter from December 1999. I can’t remember all the ins and outs (I think it relates to a column I wrote for the Evening Post that winter about Harbourside) but it certainly amused me given what has happened since.
I’ve been getting all nostalgic seeing a new wave of young people elected to the council. I was first elected on 5th May 1988 25 years ago aged 24 fresh back from university less than a year previously. I spent my time until the election started in April building up the membership on the estate. It rose from about 25 to 56 and we had a strong team which campaigned relentlessly. By Election Day we had knocked every door in the Hartcliffe end of the ward (over two thirds of the voters) calling back at least three times to try and speak to everyone. We spoke to 5121 people over the period With 3266 promising to vote for me. The final result was:
I felt a huge sense if mission, I was the first person living in the estate ever elected to represent it (I am still the only one who has), and was excited to be able to speak for my community. Thatcher was still Prime Minister and the poll tax followed shortly after. Being on the left I had a slightly romantic sense of our objectives having experienced clashes like the miners strike, Wapping and other less famous skirmishes. Politics was about a different world view not just about who could manage things better.
I was a councillor for 11 years (winning 4 elections). I dealt with many peoples personal tragedies and also collective concerns around the local provision of public services. I was lucky to work alongside two excellent ward colleagues, Ken Fyfe and Helen Holland. The greatest external focus on the estate was the 1992 riot. bristolwestpaul.wordpress.com/2011/04/28/white-riot/
I loved representing the area and it was a hard decision to quit. Most of the issues which faced the people were not local issues but the local consequences of national and international forces. The poverty of people on the estate could not be solved locally. This is why independents are a huge distraction. Tackling the underlying problems for many communities is about taking the local knowledge and fitting it into a bigger picture. Making local change means being able to act across a whole city country and globally. It is about making the links and building a movement for change. It is about political action through political parties (and other mechanisms too). It is also about political education of the local people, not competing over how many photos you can get on a leaflet standing next to dog poo or pot holes. It is with great sadness that I hear poor white working class people blaming their problems on poor working class black people rather than looking up at who is really benefiting from and perpetuating their poverty.
So I wish the new councillors well, I am partly envious and also hugely impressed with some of them I have met. They must not let the bureaucracy of the council wear them down or come to believe that they represent the council and not the people. In some ways I wish I was there with them but mainly I am thinking ‘where did those 25 years go’.
Labour has decided that councillors in Bristol should preserve democracy by ensuring that there is a constructive opposition on the council. The debate about that decision is raging in plenty of other places, I want to think about what constructive opposition might mean. Opposition is easy, highlighting the mayor’s mistakes (which there are bound to be, no-one is perfect), use the council structures to frustrate his plans (very difficult given the power’s of a mayor) and use any opportunity to criticise.
Being constructive is more difficult. But being constructive is what is required and needed by the City. Below are a few ideas but there are bound to be more:
Scrutiny and overview. The scrutiny committees have struggled to find a role. Labour could use them as they were intended to look in detail at key issues, to engage with experts and citizens (these overlap of course – seeks Venn diagram) to develop policies to propose to the Mayor and or develop feasible alternatives to his policies (even he admits he doesn’t have many beyond urban design where his views are pretty sound so there is plenty of scope to influence).
The full council meeting: This meeting is and always has been the worse of the council, its structure, indeed the layout of the room encourages bad behaviour. It is also the place where members of the media and even sometimes the public attend and is thought to typify the way the council works, whereas it is often a twisted parody of what people expect of politicians. Labour needs to avoid falling to the trap of this meeting, using it to showcase policy proposals rather than loutish tribalism.
Mayoral commissions: It seems likely the mayor will establish policy commissions. We should encourage Labour members and supporters with the necessary expertise to play a full role in this, they will be an excellent opportunity to promote progressive policies.
Outside the council Labour should not concentrate on leaflets attacking the Mayor. The – door knocking which is solely about identifying peoples’ traditional support has limited value. The work with the citizens of Bristol needs to be a discussion rather than an opinion poll. The work Marvin Rees started at the beginning of his campaign needs to be continued. Holding meetings open to the general public on issues of importance to seek solutions to the cities problems, having a real debate with local people. These could be in large groups in meeting rooms and halls or among a small group in someone’s living room.
Constructive opposition’s aim is not to disagree and resist but to persuade and influence. It is not about focussing on the here and now but also about preparing for the future.
The Labour Party in Bristol faces a dilemma. Should it join a cabinet formed by the newly elected Mayor George Ferguson. My good friend Darren Lewis has blogged passionately on the subject here:
Fundamentally he is right. A council with no opposition party is effectively a one party state, with deals stitched up in private and democracy relegated. Openness disappears as the parties on the council collude raising the old adage that it doesn’t matter who you vote for they are all the same.
You also have to ask the question is it honest of George to run a campaign which contained in large print on all his leaflets to vote for him as “the only candidate who can beat Labour” (he wasn’t the only candidate who made that claim) and then to invite Labour onto his cabinet. It must seem strange that his promise to beat Labour also meant promoting them.
Also why would Labour want to join on a cabinet with Tories and Lib Dems whose parties in Westminster are through a combination of legal changes, privatisation and funding cuts destroying local Bristol City Council. The latest information suggests £32m cuts next year. Projections by the Conservative led Local Government Association predicts that within a few years councils will only be able to afford to provide care and empty the bins. The Tories and Lib Dems are also breaking up the NHS, introducing massive cuts in benefits to the poorest and deconstructing the public sector.
These are compelling reasons for Labour to shun any cabinet posts.
On the other side the cheer leaders of George are filling twitter with claims of ‘sour grapes’ and ‘sulking’ for people like Darren who say we should nothing to do with George.
I would like to pose another question, one which also picks up on a theme in Darren’s blog. Labour and Marvin Rees did spend time opening conversations with experts both within the Labour Party and many outside. I wide range of issues were debated and filtered to find items which was developed into Marvin’s manifesto. The question is how does Labour use the council to further these ideas? Can they convince George to adopt the living wage or the building of new council housing? Can they put together a budget package which minimises the impact of the cuts on those in greatest need? In some ways it is the age old dilemma for socialists as to whether to work to make capitalism fairer or to stand outside and fight it until it collapses.
The question the Labour Party should prioritise when it meets this week is not ‘should we join the cabinet?’ but ‘how do we implement the measures we set out in our manifesto?’ In my opinion the answer to that can’t be, ‘Let’s wait three and a half years until we can fight the next mayoral election’.
If that that leads to a view that Labour should consider joining the cabinet there would have to be some very important preconditions. That membership of the cabinet does not require collective responsibility (surely an alien idea to an independent which has the hallmarks of party whips and discipline), that decisions must be made in the open and not behind the closed doors of the Mayor’s committee room and that ditching robust scrutiny is a condition of membership.
The cabinet as a group of people with executive power no longer exists, it is now little more than an advisory body to the Mayor. While the work of cabinet members may be important, meetings of the cabinet will be little more than for show. Many decisions of the council will still be made in its collection of committees.
There is no easy answer to this problem and I will play no part in it as I am working in London on the evening when this will be discussed (phew). However the debate needs to be framed around the needs of the people the Labour Party was created to represent, it needs to look forward to the coming years and not backward at the bitter and bitterly disappointing election campaign.
Bristol’s Mayoral Election: A statistical perspective
Elections allow those politicos who like to play with figures a fantastic opportunity to prove that the losers actually won and that their team did fantastically. I can’t resist an analysis of my own but will try and remain as objective as possible. I have looked at two issues:
1) How would the parties have expected to have done if there hadn’t been the huge vote beyond the mainstream parties (including the Greens).
2) What are the long term trends in Bristol based upon the last 4 all out elections in the City.
How well did the parties in Bristol really do?
The last election which all people in the city could vote? That was the general election in 2010. The turnout then was just over twice that on Thursday. 196,077 votes compared to 89,156. This means that any comparison is affected by two factors. That the profile of the turnout across the city is not the same and that in a general election people may vote differently than in a local election. A third factor is that the voting system is different allowing people to have a heart and a head vote in Thursday’s election whereas in a general election some people will vote tactically for the candidates who they think might be in with a chance winning. This means that in Thursday’s supplementary vote election you would expect ‘minor’ parties to do better.
The Results for the two elections were as follows:
# 2010 2012 Change
Liberal Democrat 34.3% 7.0% -27.3%
Labour 32.3% 29.0% -3.3%
Conservative 27.1% 9.1% -18.0%
Green 2.4% 5.9% +3.5%
Left parties 1.1% 3.3% +2.2%
Others 4.3% 45.6% +41.3%
However the national polls are not the same as they were at the general election so to have a more accurate picture of party performance we need to adjust for the change in the national picture. I have done this taking the poll of polls published by Anthony Wells on his yougov related blog.
# 2010 %s 2012%s Change
Labour 29% 42% +13%
Conservative 36% 33% -3%
LD 23% 9% -14%
Others 12% 16% +4%
If we factor these changes into Bristol (which assumes that the national changes are reflected in Bristol) the percentages we should have expected in the mayoral election and the difference to the actual result are as follows:
# Projected Variation
Labour 45% -16%
Con 24% -15%
LD 20% -13%
Others 11% +44%
This tends to suggest that the party which did worse compared to what might be expected was Labour (although rounding means it could be just as bad for the Conservatives). A reading of the turnout statistics suggests that much of this loss was due to spectacularly low turnouts in traditional labour areas (barely above 10% in Labour’s core areas while nearer 40% in conservative and lib dem ‘core areas’ – excluding postal votes) but it would be hard to argue that the whole effect was just due to this and that some normally Labour supporters did vote for independent or ‘minor party’ candidates.
Long term trends
Bristol rarely has all out elections. This is due to the ‘election by thirds’ in local elections. Also prior to 2010 the parliamentary boundaries did not match the city boundary. There were two all out elections in 1999 (following boundary changes, now long overview) and 1995 following the abolition of the County Council. 1995 was a the high water mark of the Labour vote, at least since the formation of the SDP and the last time that one party got over 50% of the vote in the City. This does skew the analysis a little but the trends in party share in the 4 all out elections does tell an interesting story.
Labour appears to be on a steady slide, The Lib Dems and Conservatives have seen a catastrophic collapse in their vote last week and the greens have risen (partly due to the difference in voting system) but are still trailing the other mainstream parties.
It could be argued that this recent vote was unusual, which it certainly was. It we look just at the four parties share ignoring other parties the graph looks very different:
This shows Labour in a strengthening position after Thursday in comparison to the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives.
It doesn’t take a genius to realise that the election result was bad news for the three traditional political parties. The analysis here suggests it was much worse for Labour than just looking at the votes cast might suggest. However it does also suggest that if we start to see more independents standing in local elections following this result Labour may be in a stronger position than the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in holding and gaining council seats.
Labour will be hoping that turnout rises among its core voters in future elections and the Tories and Lib Dems that after a brief flirtation with independents that their voters will come back to them in May. The Greens will be hoping that some of the independent vote will come to them and that they can hold onto the voters who want to vote for them but don’t wish to see their vote wasted.
Party politics in Bristol’s local government is not dead, indeed traditional political parties (including ‘minor’ parties) polled more than independents (just) but it is wounded.
Below is the text of a speech I gave on 3rd July to the Association of Town Centre Management. The speech delivered would have varied slightly from this text as I didn’t just stand up and read it, it just provided me with a structure and a crutch.
Town and city centres are the cradle of civilisation. People came together to trade creating markets which in turn developed villages in key locations into towns. The exchange of goods led to the exchange of ideas, to innovation, invention and modern society. The historic role of town centres was not just about trade but also about culture, learning and life itself.
When I set up the Broadmead board in Bristol the threat to our centres was the out of town development, a comparison shopping Mecca with acres of car parking and associated leisure facilities. The battle was to stake out a lively, safe and diverse town centre alternative. I remember the effort we put into making our streets clean as the first step to winning the confidence of retailers and landlords alike. From there came the redevelopments, here in Bristol, Cabot Circus.
Today our town centres face a new threat, not that the out of town centres have gone away. In some ways this threat has been cloaked by the recession.
There is now a new place where people can meet, trade goods and ideas. The internet. The internet is creating communities of interest which don’t need to be co-located. Shopping from your sofa and socialising from the living room. Goods purchased direct from retailers or via Amazon arrive on our doorsteps. We can even sell to each other via EBay turning us all back into traders.
Town centres are no longer required for their historic purpose. Perhaps we should close the conference now. Have I come here like Mark Antony “To bury town centre management, not to praise it”?
I work in the housing sector where housing management has developed into neighbourhood management and is now having to reinvent itself again. I think that our town centres need more than management,
more than a green or black bin with a gold embossed council logo on it and matching lampposts,
more than pictures covering the windows of empty shops.
Our town centres need to find new purpose and new energy. In some ways the Portas review says it all but I have some time to fill so please indulge be a little longer.
My organisation, which started as 1 then 2 then 3 then 6 council housing departments is breaking away from its housing past. When we look at the areas we serve managing the housing is no longer enough as we need to deal with our estates by more than one property at a time. Neighbourhood management also is not enough. While cutting the grass is important, to have sustainable communities we need to do more. We also have to respond to the huge demographic change which is taking place, as our society grows collectively older.
We can’t wait for others to deal with the problems on our estates, the councils are closing services and the charities are falling away as grant income becomes harder to find. We are having to move from management to leadership. Can we create new jobs and new businesses ourselves, with our customers? Can we design our homes to respond to peoples’ needs? Should we be providing new services ourselves, care, health, education, the list is potentially endless.
This is also the challenge facing town centre management.
Now we all know that town centres are constrained by historical layouts, dispersed ownership and archaic planning regulations. Indeed I am trying to open a shop in a town centre in Somerset. The planning hurdles to me doing this are only matched in their complexity by their absurdity. I need a change of use, but to do this I am required to say what I want to do in every square metre of the building, I made the mistake at one point saying that I did not know what I would do with one of the existing backrooms to the shop which now means I need to provide a detailed floor plan specifying all uses. If I was an individual entrepreneur rather than part of a corporate body I would have given up months ago.
We need to be bold with our town centres or watch them collapse into a combination of charity shops, pound shops, coffee shops, the few hardy perennials and a lot of empty unused space. Holding markets alone will not sort this out, sorry Mary. In my experience many shop based retailers hate market stall holders as they envy their freedom from overheads. We are lucky in Bristol with the quality of our market stalls but many town markets are dominated by outdoor versions of pound shops or car boot sales.
We need to find new uses for the spaces which are unlet, not keep holding out for retailers to fill the space. This can’t be achieved by town centre management. To succeed we need to convince councils to have the courage to tear up the rule book and for owners to think again about what uses will work in their properties. Town centre managers need to be able to advocate for a radical overhaul of our high streets. Perhaps we need a form of enterprise zone for centres which not allow a reduction in business rates but also a more flexible planning regime allowing changes of use between retail and other activities.
Let us go back to the local communities and customers and see what they can do. There have been a few examples of empty shops being turned over to new businesses and social enterprises to create new uses and activity. Perhaps some of our shops should be converted into housing or offices or performance spaces or artist studios. Town centres were never just about retail and we need to be far more open to a more diversity. A monoculture based largely around shopping and eating is always much easier to create out of town. The difference about the high street is that it is somewhere and can be far more than a covered retail park.
Town centres need to be where people come together when they want more from a relationship than 140 characters. We still need human contact, we still need to feel things. We can’t do everything through the internet.
This needs leadership not management (well maybe management as well). It needs the authority to change the mindset of planners, owners, licensing. It needs the credibility to involve a wide range of partners and local communities. I think you are exceptionally well placed to do this.
So I say
The Association of Town Centre Management is Dead
The Association of Town Centre Leadership
George Ferguson is a colourful character in an arena full of dour people. He oozes enthusiasm and energy. I have known George for over 20 years now and have often found myself on the same side of an argument as him. Recently we have been shoulder to shoulder on the stump arguing both for electoral reform and an elected mayor. We have even danced together at the opening of the Tobacco factory in Raleigh road, where I was then a resident.
So why am I so uneasy about rallying behind the bookies favourite for mayor? He has recently suggested that it is all about party politics. George has only resigned his membership of the Liberal Democrats after the referendum result was in. However it isn’t that, this is a job which is bigger than parties and as failed candidates for Bristol West we should probably set up a society.
My concern is that George seems to have a blind spot. Hopefully one he can address before we go to the polls. In some ways this blog is a plea for him to address this issue before votes have to be cast in November. George is a great enthusiast for Bristol, he is often right about issues on design and planning, but he doesn’t seem to be able to separate this from an enthusiasm for himself.
In the late 1990s one of the biggest issues in Bristol was the development of Canon’s Marsh, now Harbourside. George was part of one of the losing teams in a bid to develop the site, I seem to remember it was called something like little Venice because it including an extra dock for a ship near Lloyds arena. Once the winning bid was announced George joined the campaign to defeat it. He was successful and then became part of the team for the subsequent scheme which got planning permission.
George is a strong advocate, quite rightly, for mixed use developments, dare I use the phrase – ‘with active ground floor uses’. When a terrible, sub urban housing development was proposed for the inner city Elizabeth Shaw chocolate factory in Greenbank was proposed George was soon advising and supporting the campaign against it. Planning permission was refused and then lo and behold George was the architect for the developer of a new scheme. Although the scheme has been criticised by some I thought it was an attractive mixed use which would be a real boost to the area (although I was concerned by the lack of affordable housing). George has said on twitter that he was not going to benefit financially from the scheme but then did not answer any questions about whether his architectural service was free or fee. He has also branded questions relating to his interests as ‘gutter politics’ rather than addressing them.
We can see George also at the forefront of opposing the redevelopment of Ashton Gate, suggesting a mixed use scheme instead (with his firm as the architects?) and a similar position relating to the plans to redevelop the old South Bristol College site.
My concern is that George is unable to separate his passion for Bristol from his commercial interests. He has said publicly that he will resign his membership from the Society of Merchant Venturers and other memberships which might create a suggestion of a conflict of interest. For me it’s not what he is a member of but his apparent inability to see that he business model (as the Clash would say “Turning rebellion into money”) suggests that he has a blind spot in terms of such conflicts. He has so far made no clear statements (which I have seen) in relation to his business interests in the City. The potential power of the Mayor makes this a critical issue and one which I hope and I’m sure George can clear up before the vote.