A trip to Bristol to speak at a conference made the Executive Director of the Economic Partnership realise that the two cities have remarkably similar economies. But which one will come out on top in the long run?
Leave aside for the moment the fact that Bristol is 70% larger [in population] than Brighton. Like Brightonians, and what the HSBC Future of Business report called their "rebellious alternative economy", Bristolians also think of themselves as being non-conformist: witness the phenomenon of Banksy and the recent Battle of Stokes Croft Tesco.
Their economic success is demonstrated by their rankings in league tables of things like the number of start-up businesses, unemployment rates, private sector job growth, qualifications of the workforce etc although Bristol is somewhat ahead of Brighton in most of these things.
Bristol has an excellent university [part of the prestigious Russell Group]; Brighton has two, one of which, Sussex, is rated in the top 50 universities in the world. Just like Brighton the workforce is highly educated but isn’t home-grown with local schools performing well below the national average. It seems that in both locations people come to study and like it so much that they stay.
Both cities have diversified their economic base over the past two decades; Bristol more than Brighton with its aerospace industry and high-tech firms but both cities share a burgeoning digital sector and mature business & financial services industries. Both have established themselves as increasingly important regional centres for arts, culture and music and both are steeped in an historic legacy of fine architecture and beautiful buildings [together with some dreadful mistakes].
On the negative side both also have a similar problem with drugs that lead to too many deaths [crack cocaine in Bristol, heroin in Brighton] and both have pockets of social deprivation that contrast sharply with significant affluence. They differ markedly in their demographics with 14% of Bristol’s population being black and ethnic minorities [BME] but only about 6% in Brighton & Hove.
Like Brighton, Bristol is a collection of villages that are often disconnected socially as well as geographically. Many residents of Hove still don’t see themselves as being a part of the same city as Brighton just as many residents of south Bristol don’t feel connected with the rest of their city. It seems to be more pronounced in Bristol but that could partly be because Bristol doesn’t have as good a bus service as Brighton [where does?].
One of the marked differences between the two cities, which gives Bristol a distinct economic advantage. is its brand new Enterprise Zone giving significant tax breaks that have already attracted new companies to locate there. The Coast to Capital Local Enterprise Partnership [LEP] area didn’t get an Enterprise Zone [see earlier story] and consequently has little in the way of grants or incentives to give away to companies seeking a good deal when they relocate.
The boldest difference between the two cities is political. Perhaps because chaotic local politics in Bristol has delivered seven council leaders in the past decade, the residents voted in favour of a single elected Mayor in a referendum held in May. With a turnout of 24% and a narrow winning margin of just over 3 percentage points it hardly reflected the will of all the people [or even a majority] but it is a mandate nevertheless.
Interestingly Brighton has had exactly the same number of leaders representing three different parties over the same period of time. But in Brighton there is absolutely no appetite from any political party to cede power to a single elected Mayor; a referendum in 2001 soundly rejected the idea.
It will be interesting to follow, compare and contrast the fortunes of the two cities; Brighton being the only unitary authority to return to the committee system and Bristol shortly to become the most recent of a handful of cities to have a powerful Mayor.
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