Increasing social inequality is, along with a healthy environment, the most pressing issue facing the world, the UK and growing cities like Bristol. The fact is there are many people and communities in our relatively prosperous city that are unable to progress up the social and economic ladder. During the 50 years I have lived in Bristol, I have always aimed to tackle inequality through positive action, through regeneration and jobs. This has, of course, particularly exercised my mind for the three years I have been mayor, and warrants a moral response by all of us. It is a chronic issue that has been with us for decades, where city leaders have continuously failed and I am determined we shall buck this trend in Bristol.
I am not interested in fine words, but in action, and the work has already started here. It is disappointing that I see so many party politicians failing to grasp the complex problems and borrowing national policy positions that don't address or resolve inequality and the ongoing issues in our city. It is important to understand the historical and complex causes of inequality and poverty in Bristol and other cities. Once we have got to grips with these causes then we can move forward in addressing this crucial challenge.
Before I was elected in 2012 the greatest causes of deprivation were unemployment and unequal education and skills opportunities, as highlighted in The Bristol Deprivation Report based on 2008-12 surveys. This issue is shown to be most significant in the areas of Whitchurch Park, Hartcliffe, Southmead, Filwood and Lawrence Hill, demonstrating it is not as simple as a North/South divide, as it is sometimes painted, but much more complex.
Like many others cities, inequality in Bristol begins before birth. Expecting mothers exposed to greater air pollution are more likely to have babies with lower birth weight which can impact on intelligence and increase the likelihood of developmental delays and cognitive and behavioural challenges in children. In Bristol, key indicators of health deprivation are mood and anxiety disorders in children. These effects are more likely to be experienced by mothers who live in socioe-conomically disadvantaged areas with less access to alternative forms of transport and green spaces. We are working to solve this in Bristol through expanding our transport infrastructure and investing in our urban parks and wildlife.
This gap in inequality continues into school. This is where ethnicity, socio-economic status, and gender can, sadly, play a key role in determining a child's future. A 2012 report by Bristol University found that
"Somali learners, Eastern European boys, White/Black Caribbean boys, Gypsy/Roma and Traveller learners are below average at each Key Stage. White British and ethnic minority boy learners eligible for free school meals are significantly "at risk of underachievement".
The majority of these children come from the most deprived areas of Bristol. Even more, these children have a substantially decreased opportunity to attend university in the future. Inequality in higher education participation and attainment by people from lower income households has grown sharply in the UK since the 1980s as a result of decreased financial support available to lower income families. In the last few years, Westminster taking billions from welfare has damaged equality in Bristol.
Once people are eligible to work in Bristol there have been historic inequalities faced by those who live in the most deprived areas, despite the fact Bristol fares better than the UK average in terms of employment and income.
It is clear that there are various causes of inequality that affects people for different reasons. Other serious forms of inequality are based on gender, sexual orientation, disability, size and type of family, language, citizenship/immigration status, national origin. As a result, there are persistent and different kinds of inequalities and levels of poverty that vary for every person at various stages of their lives. There is clearly no one direct cause of poverty.
Any responsible policymaker must take all this into when developing policy to reduce poverty. There is no "silver bullet" political solution that can "cure" social inequality or poverty for all and it is certainly not cured by fine words. This is by no means an excuse not to tackle poverty or social inequality. On the contrary, this complex understanding requires that policymakers prioritise tackling inequality and poverty meticulously, continuously, and relevant to local circumstances. This complex understanding of the causes of poverty and social inequality call for local policies made by and for the people facing the issues that confront them and not borrowed from a national or party policy template devised in Westminster.
This is why we must continue to make strategic local investments in education and skills attainment for children and adults and match that with vital mentoring services (during childhood and adulthood), high quality employment opportunities, and access to skills training. As a 2016 Learning City, Bristol is set to tackle these disparities head on.
In particular, we are targeting investment in the most highly deprived areas and I want to ensure we continue to do so. Since I was elected, unemployment and job seekers allowance have significantly reduced. Bristol is now performing well, being the number one UK place for startups. We have the lowest business closure rate, and have experienced the greatest economic growth of any major city outside London and the South East.
By no means do I imply that the City Council or I are entirely responsible for this. The drivers of economic growth are many and varied, but this is a substantially different picture than that I inherited. We are also investing in major public transport infrastructure to allow people to have access to these new economic opportunities. I am only too aware from my many visits across Bristol and from my Mayor's Question Times, that not everyone has been able to partake in this economic growth and that this growth has not translated into better life outcomes for all. That is why we have fought and must continue to fight for economic and social justice for all, despite historic cuts to social services coming from Westminster. This is something that requires everyone to come together from both the public and private sectors.
My vision for tackling inequality is long-term and unashamedly biased towards Bristol. From 20mph, to RPZ, to metrobus, to engagement hubs, to 10,000 new primary school places, to children planting 30,000 trees, to a rainbow cabinet - all these are integral evidence-based policies that help secure a foundation to position Bristol to sustainability and fiercely tackle inequality. However, if we are to tackle social inequality seriously we all must play a role from the way we understand the roots of the problem to how we engage with our society on a daily basis. Our individual actions have a global effect on the lives of others. Like all change, the time of transition is the most difficult, frustrating, and can feel endless. We are now making some real change in Bristol, nobody can dispute that, but it does take time. The journey to economic and social justice is long and hard. It requires fundamental changes to alter generations of poverty and inequality. Our duty as policy makers is to ensure that the journey towards justice is practical for daily lives of Bristolians and not entirely idealistic. I am hopeful that everyone will begin to experience some of the positive effects of these policies that will, I am sure, lead us to a more socially, environmentally and economically just society.
The research is clear, anyone who suggests that we should not pursue a comprehensive and multi-faceted approach to addressing poverty and social inequality does not have a clear understanding of what tackling poverty means. Our city should look to a cocktail of issues to address social inequality rather than resorting to just one, two or three because, as research and experience shows, the causes of poverty and deprivation are enormously complex. Bristol needs leadership that not only understands this but is prepared to see the necessary action through to craft a pathway to much greater equality of opportunity for all.