Bristol: Successes and missed opportunities

October 14, 2002

Large-scale investment and business growth in Britain's cities is still largely determined by the basic facts of location and labour supply. A new study of the Bristol area funded by the Economic and Social Research Council points to the proximity of the city to London and the south east, access to a wide labour pool, quality of life as key factors driving decisions to invest in the area.

Bristol has attracted continuing investment by big companies in financial services, high technology, aerospace, and, most recently, secured the relocation of 6,000 Ministry of Defence staff. This is despite what many have seen as the lack of co-ordinated planning and strategic vision across the urban area as a whole. It is also in sharp contrast to high levels of deprivation even by national standards in parts of the city and outer area housing estates. Some areas continue to have some of the highest incidences of deprivation and worst records for educational achievement in Britain.

Bristol is one of four major city studies within the ESRC's £3.5million Cities Programme, which continues until the end of 2002. The studies were done to provide more understanding of the patterns of change in British cities in the last 25 years. Particular attention was put on the policy role in relation to cities, competition and social cohesion.

The Bristol research drew on surveys of business and face-to-face interviews with big employers, small businesses, the property and planning sector, Government and voluntary sector, and providers of employment schemes.

The study identified the availability of land, particularly on the northern fringe adjacent to the M4/M5 motorways, as a major factor in propelling growth of the Bristol economy in recent years. It was "perhaps the major single policy influence over recent decades enabling Bristol to compete for attractive projects", says Professor Martin Boddy, University of Bristol. It reflected the 'permissive planning regime' in the 1970s and 1980s which facilitated development in highly prized locations. Developers came in to provide business parks, the retail mall (Cribbs Causeway) and leisure complex. Major companies including Hewlett Packard and Orange moved in, while 10,000 houses were built in the initial stages of development.

The study found that, despite early fears, development in the 'edge-city' has not been at the expense of the core city. And in the 1990s, after two decades of decline in population and jobs, the core urban area enjoyed a significant turn-round. Population went up, the number of households grew rapidly with new housing and conversions snapped up by better-off people. Cultural facilities, often lottery-funded, flourished. Financial and business services companies continued to invest in the centre as well as on the fringe and a significant part of their activity relates to business on a national rather than merely local scale. The media sector has developed niches in particular areas. All of these factors have contributed to the competitiveness of the core city which still accounts for more employment than any other part of the region.

The record on social exclusion, however, has not changed significantly. Five Bristol wards are in the worst 10 per cent of wards nationally. Despite this, the research found that this has not deterred inward investors who appear to be unfazed by deprivation. A feature of the development of the city is major investments in areas which are next door to concentrated disadvantage.

The greater threat to the ongoing development of the Bristol region is posed by the lack of co-ordination between four different local authorities and split between local and regional government.

Political control and weak strategic planning across the city-region as a whole has frustrated the development of "effective and pro-active management of growth", says Professor Boddy. Tensions also exist between the emerging layers of government, including Regional Development Agencies, which see the Bristol-Swindon axis as having major growth potential. These tensions could threaten the possibility of Bristol and its region realising their full economic potential and their capacity for sustainable future growth.
For further information, contact Professor Martin Boddy, telephone 44-117-954-5568

Or Iain Stewart or Lesley Lilley, ESRC External Relations, telephone 44-179-341-3032/41-3119.

NOTES FOR EDITORS 1. The ESRC is the UK's largest funding agency for research and postgraduate training relating to social and economic issues. It has a track record of providing high-quality, relevant research to business, the public sector and Government. The ESRC invests more than £46 million every year in social science research. At any time, its range of funding schemes may be supporting 2,000 researchers within academic institutions and research policy institutes. It also funds postgraduate training within the social sciences, thereby nurturing the researchers of tomorrow. The ESRC website address is:
2. REGARD is the ESRC's database of research. It provides a key source of information on ESRC social science research awards and all associated publications and products. The website can be found at
3. The ESRC's £4 million Cities: Competitiveness and Cohesion Research Programme runs from August 1996 until December 2002 and is directed by Professor Michael Parkinson, Liverpool John Moores University. Four major integrated case studies have been undertaken - London, Bristol, Liverpool/Manchester, Glasgow/Edinburgh - as well as around twenty other projects on key research topics. To find out more about the programme view the website at

Economic & Social Research Council

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