Green perspectives on Stockwood and Bristol. Mostly.

Saturday, 7 July 2012

The Bristol 'City Deal'

A flyer drops through the door, from “Stockwood Gold”. It offers money in a hurry. All I have to do is take my unwanted jewellery, gold, silver and platinum – or anything else of value - and turn it into cash at the shop that's just opened up the road. Recession generates its own economic intiatives. It's an ill wind....

Much the same seems to be happening to the city as a whole. Bristol needs money in a hurry if it's to turn all those ambitions for transport and education into reality. The desperately needed Bristol Metro, for instance, to bring the rail network into something resembling a decent transport system.

It's that Metro, along with the magic figure of £1 billion, that features in the Post's headline for the 'City Deal' package, as dreamed up by Government ministers and the Local Enterprise Partnership, and faithfully relayed with the same spin to the public by unquestioning media. Just like the flyer for the pawnshop, it's strong on promise, but weak on detail of what the City Deal is really about.

What is clear, though, is that that no new money is on offer. What Bristol gets is the chance to borrow, on the strength of hoped for future income. That income will (local, national, and global economies permitting) come from the extra growth in business rates from the enterprise zones, generated by adopting policies that favour business above all else; planning concessions, land release, deregulation etc. If business still doesn't deliver, it's the people who pay the bill.

The announcement comes within 24hrs of a further £50billion being created out of nothing to hand to the banks, on the unlikely premise that they in turn will give the economy a boost by lending it on. You'd think the Bank of England might have handed 2% of it direct to Bristol and Network Rail to get on with the job. But you probably don't understand the financial system.

The publicity around the City Deal is thorough enough to name every possible reopened railway station in and around Bristol - but it doesn't actually say who manages all the change, who makes all the decisions, or how they demonstrate public support. There are vague references to 'Greater Bristol' and to the Local Enterprise Partnership, even to the elected council (or, in future, the City Mayor). Whether your vote (in Bristol or its neighbours) makes any difference to the city's progress looks less likely than ever. A new mayor, whoever it might be, will find it very hard to resist the invitation to borrow enormous sums, even if it commits the public into a high risk enterprise. Taking risks is not what local authorities are supposed to do. Conventional wisdom leaves that to the private sector.

It does look like part of the price of Bristol's £1 billion 'right to borrow' will be a fire sale of public assets. The City Deal establishes a “Bristol Public Property Boardto manage “up to £1 billion of Bristol City Council assets and an estimated 180 land and property assets in the ownership of a range of other public sector partners. Integrated management of the portfolio will help to unlock more land for economic growth or housing, use assets to lever in other public and private sector investment and generate operational efficiencies by co-locating services.”

Selling the family silver, in other words. I dare say “Stockwood Gold” would buy it.

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