Bristol in the south-west of the UK has been one of the country’s more prosperous cities over the past few centuries, but high levels of social depravation are leading to a rethink of how it can ‘build back better’ in a post-Covid landscape. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

In the centre of Bristol stands an empty plinth from where the statue of Edward Colston, 18th-century philanthropist and slave trader, was toppled and thrown into the nearby docks by protestors in June. The symbolism of an empty plinth is open to interpretation; some may view it as an erasure of history, others an opportunity for change and growth.

Bristol’s mayor, Marvin Rees, believes it is the latter. Soon after the Black Lives Matter protests, Rees launched Bristol’s History Commission to look at the city’s historical development, with a more inclusive outlook taking account of its relationship with slavery. The commission will make a collaborative decision with city stakeholders about who or what should replace the Colston statue.

James Durie, chief executive of the Bristol Chamber of Commerce, reiterates the idea that Bristol is taking stock in order to better prepare for the future demands of a changed economic and social landscape. Durie co-wrote Bristol’s One City economic recovery strategy with deputy mayor Craig Cheney, launched in October as an urgent response to help the city’s economy through the current Covid-19 crisis. The recovery strategy builds on work Rees started with the first iteration of the One City Plan launched in January 2019 – a 2050 economic roadmap for the city with social inclusion and sustainability at the forefront.

Bristol’s past prosperity and FDI future

Bristol’s economy has historically been centred around its position as a seaport going back to the Roman era. Today, the Bristol Port Company operates the surviving commercial docks at Portbury and Avonmouth. Since privatisation in 1991, more than £500m has been invested in upgrades making it the 15th-largest port in the UK and the 10th largest in England. Alhough more than 10,000 jobs depend on port-based businesses in Bristol, in more recent years sectors such as aerospace, technology, financial services, creative industries and life sciences have become more central to the city’s fortunes.

Bristol has experienced sustained population and economic growth and had one of the highest employment rates of all the UK’s ‘core’ cities in 2019, according to ONS data. The city’s higher education qualification rates are also higher than all other core cities, with 51% of Bristol’s working age residents qualified to degree level or above, compared with the UK average of 40%, according to ONS data from 2019.

The city is the primary economic centre within the west of England. In 2008, Bristol generated $15.32bn (£11.40bn) of wealth (measured by gross value added). This was almost 12% of the wealth generated in the whole of the South West region, while Bristol contains just 8% of the south-west population, according to Bristol City Council.

According to EY’s UK Attractiveness Survey 2020, Bristol is the seventh-best location in the UK when it comes to attracting foreign direct investment (FDI). There were 30 FDI projects in the South West region in 2019, down from 35 in 2018. Since 1997, there have been 645 FDI projects in the South West region, more than one-quarter (29%) of which were in Bristol. The largest proportion of investment in Bristol in this time has come from the US (33%), followed by France (27%). On a sector basis, the largest number of FDI projects in the South West region in 2019 were in the business services sector (seven), up from four the previous year. According to EY, the best indicators of a location’s attractiveness are to hold a status as a core city and proximity to universities – criteria that Bristol fulfils.

In December 2019, the employment rate in Bristol stood at 76.7%, which was 1% above the England and Wales national average, and the South West region has a relatively young population, with 18.5% of the population being made up by children, and older people comprising just 13% of the region’s population, compared with a national average of 18.5% for England and Wales, according to Bristol City Council.

Covid-19 crisis exacerbates Bristol’s deprivation problems

Despite the economic health of Bristol and impressive inward investment figures, social deprivation is still a problem in the city, with 15% of residents (70,700 people) living in what are classed as the 10% most deprived areas in England. Added to which the economic impact of the Covid-19 crisis on businesses saw Bristol’s unemployment rate more than double to 4.5% between March and August this year, and more than 70,000 people in the city have been furloughed. Bristol City Council plans to allocate £10m over the next two years to support the immediate challenges the pandemic has created.

Durie believes the crisis has meant recognising the importance of building a different and more resilient city economy going forward.

“The One City renewal strategy is not designed to simply address the economic damage done by Covid-19 but to also look at addressing historical economic challenges,” he says. “It is a real chance to rebuild our local economy and make it sustainable for years to come. We will build back better.”

Durie adds that much of Bristol’s past and future success will be a function of its talent pool, which is closely linked to its higher education institutions and teaching hospitals.

“Bristol has a strong ability to attract and retain talent with a combination of quality of life – with a ‘West Coast’ feel – and job opportunities,” he says. “We have computer scientists coming out of university saying we don’t need to go and start our business in London,” he adds. The quality of life issue looks set to rise in importance when it comes to attracting a skilled workforce as people have more remote working options in the post-Covid landscape.

On top of this, Bristol is perhaps not given enough credit for its innovative healthcare sector comparative to the rest of the UK, according to Alex Young, founder of virtual reality medical training company Virti, who completed his medical training in Bristol. The company was ranked in the top 100 groundbreaking new technologies by Time magazine in late 2020 and is in the process of scaling up its workforce.

“We wouldn’t have been able to build out the team in Silicon Valley because the competition for talent is so fierce and would probably have cost ten times as much,” says Young.

As well as home-grown talent, Bristol has seen its tech sector attract foreign expansions in recent years. Colorado-based cloud computing company Pax8 selected Bristol as its first major international growth hub in mid-2020. Bristol and the surrounding region have many technology research and development centres, including Oracle’s Cloud Development, HP Labs and the University of Bristol Smart Lab team, which staged the world’s first public trial of 5G in 2018.

Bristol looks to diversify economy

Each year Bristol Port receives about 27% of all UK aviation fuel imports. The South West region has grown a strong aerospace sector with Airbus, Boeing and Rolls-Royce all present locally. According to Invest Bath & Bristol, the regional aerospace sector supports 98,000 jobs and has been valued at £7bn.

Other large employers include the Ministry of Defence (MoD), which moved its procurement centre to Abbey Wood in Bristol in 1995. It is the largest MoD site in the UK, employing about 14,000 people and attracting associated investment.

The UK’s Department of Trade and Investment has identified life sciences as a sector of resilience in Bristol going forward, and this has been reflected in the number of international inquiries the West of England investment agency has received during the pandemic. “Our life sciences sector has shown great resilience during a time of constrained international activity,” says Tim Bowles, mayor of the west of England.

The region’s sector expertise includes business accelerator Future Space, deep tech incubator Unit DX, the Bristol location of UK technology incubator Set Squared and Bristol Robotics Laboratory, a partnership between Bristol University and the University of the West of England.

Although the Covid-19 pandemic has caused FDI to drop dramatically – not just in Bristol, but around the world – companies are looking to a brighter future, according to the West of England investment agency. “There are positive signs of growth behind the awfulness of the challenge ahead,” says Durie of the Bristol Chamber of Commerce. He adds that he firmly believes the change the city is currently undergoing can be stewarded towards building a better Bristol in a post-Covid and Brexit environment.

For more of Investment Monitor’s coverage of the UK’s cities, read through our Future of British Cities series: