Can local leadership advance post Covid-19 social justice? Marvin Rees and Robin Hambleton draw lessons from the experiences of local people delivering the Bristol One City Approach

Can local activists living in a specific place make a difference to the quality of life in the area where they live? Or is it the case that local communities are helpless victims in a global flow of events determined by distant decision-makers who do not care about the impact of their decisions on particular places?

These questions highlight the stark choices all societies now face as they seek to recover from the catastrophe of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The good news

The good news is that, across the world, local communities have responded, with both compassion and creativity, to the challenges set down by the Covid-19 pandemic. Found in places like Amsterdam, Barcelona, Copenhagen, Newcastle, Preston and Wigan, these place-based leadership efforts provide signposts for the way forward.

Largely unnoticed by the national and international media, these cities, and many others, are moving practice beyond outdated, neoliberal conceptions of society. They are demonstrating that imaginative place-based leadership can advance the cause of fairness in our societies.

Progressive leaders in communities across the world now face four major challenges at once: 1) the Covid-19 health emergency; 2) a sharp economic downturn arising from the pandemic; 3) the global climate and ecological emergencies; and 4) deeply disturbing increases in social, economic and racial inequality.

This is happening in a context in which the task of political leadership is becoming increasing complex as both the left’s and right’s trust in public institutions is increasingly fragile, with misinformation common.

The key point we want to make here is that any effective approach to responding to these enormous societal challenges needs to be integrated, place-based and relational.

The Bristol One City Approach

The Bristol One City Approach is designed to unite civic purpose in our city. It brings a wide range of voices into local policy-making processes and acts as a catalyst for collaboration – to identify and define challenges and opportunities and the actions the city needs to take.

At the first City Gathering, held in July 2016, 70 civic leaders drawn from every sector of the city shared ideas on the big challenges facing Bristol and agreed to work together in a new way to tackle them.

At the twelfth City Gathering, held in March 2021, over 400 civic leaders participated. More and more leaders have joined in – from local businesses, trade unions and local communities – because they see great value in this inclusive approach to community problem solving.

The Bristol One City Approach combines structural with cultural innovation. We get people together at these gatherings, and also through the thematic boards we have set up to drive work on specific areas such as homes and communities, climate and sustainability, transport and children. And we introduced a way of working we describe as ‘make a big offer and make a big ask’. This involves asking partners to approach the city with a big offer, then ask for what is needed to enable delivery of that offer.

The beauty of this approach is that it invites leadership and guides people to look at the possible through imaginative responses to the challenges and opportunities facing the city. Many civic initiatives designed to tackle issues relating to fairness and prosperity are now making an impact on the quality of life in the city, and these are documented in the One City Annual Reports [pdf].

Here are just three examples of inspirational local leadership:

The Feeding Bristol Healthy Holiday 2019 Programme delivered over 65,000 meals to needy children and other vulnerable people. Council staff took on a leadership-enabling role, but it was voluntary sector activists who led working with businesses, faith groups and volunteers from every ward of the city to make sure that no one went hungry.

The Period Friendly Bristol Initiative of 2020 is already recognised as a world-leading example of a civic initiative designed to address the problems encountered by women and girls being denied access to menstrual products. Again the initiative was a joint effort between the council, business and civil society.

Launched in 2018, the Bristol Housing Festival promotes better ways to live in cities. In January 2021, residents moved into the first Modern Methods of Construction development of its kind to be completed in the UK. The Zedpods homes were built on stilts above a council car park. The eleven affordable and low-carbon apartments house young workers and vulnerable households. The scheme was driven by a local social entrepreneur working with Bristol City Council, Zedpods and the YMCA.

The Bristol One City Plan

Launched at a City Gathering in January 2019, the Bristol One City Plan looks forward to 2050 and sets out, in detail, how the city intends to become a fair, healthy and sustainable city.

This is not a conventional city council plan – it is a collective plan that sees the council’s efforts as part of a broader civic effort. Better than that, it is reviewed annually with our city’s youth mayors having a direct say on what the top three priorities should be for each coming year.

Written by city partners working closely with the mayor and the city council in a highly inclusive process, the One City Plan delivers a level of consistency in forward planning that has been lacking in Bristol. The collaborative process builds in a degree of immunity to the uncertainty thrown up by political change. Thus, in the recent mayoral election, city partners asked all mayoral candidates if they would remain committed to the One City Plan and Approach.

Each year the European Union invites cities from across the continent to apply for the award of European Capital of Innovation (iCapital). This is a very competitive process involving rigorous evaluation of bids by an international panel of experts. It is a credit to Bristol that, in September 2019, the One City Approach led to our city being recognised as one of the six most innovative cities in Europe.

Emerging lessons

Three lessons emerge from this discussion. First, the top-down ‘silo’ approach, traditionally employed by central governments, simply cannot comprehend, let alone respond effectively to, complex modern challenges.

Second, it follows that it is essential to rebalance power within the UK. Elected local authorities must be given the respect, powers and financial certainty that is commonplace in other western democracies.

Third, strong place-based politics is unique in that it offers an approach to governance that can be both strategic and street-level at the same time. Creative relationship-building at the local level not only gets things done, it can build interest in, and support for, progressive change.


The Bristol One City Approach is discussed in more detail in a new book by Robin Hambleton, Cities and communities beyond COVID-19. How local leadership can change our future for the better (Bristol University Press).

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