A city in the grip of existential change – Business Leader finds out what the future holds for Bristol

City Spotlight | South West
Bristol City Centre

As Bristol grapples both with the onslaught of the pandemic and questions around its identity following the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston, Business Leader brought together a group of company owners and city leaders to discuss how the city is reacting and its prospects for the future.

The panel

James Woollam – MD, Hayes Parsons

Tim Bowles – Metro Mayor for West of England

Rachael Sherratt – Associate Project Manager, JLL

Lee Bignell – Founder and MD, Mobius Works

James Durie – MD, Business West

The last few months have been unprecedented – what have been the most vivid moments for you?

James Woollam: “There have been a few, and each a reminder of the one-off nature of what we are living through. Looking out of the office window in central Bristol and seeing no cars or people in the early days, when I was in to check the post (we were identified as an essential business), was a really stark reminder of how significant the effect of lockdown was. 

“The daily Zoom calls we have with the staff, seeing them remain upbeat and cheerful whilst making video calls a normal part of our daily routine. And on a personal note, my partner sending a picture of herself in full PPE including face shield whilst working in the ICU of Southmead Hospital really brought things home.”

Tim Bowles: “During the first week of lockdown, I worked with teams across the West of England Combined Authority (WECA) to contact hundreds of local businesses on behalf of the NHS, to call for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) donations.

“Over 125 local organisations pledged their support, with tens of thousands of masks, gloves aprons and hand sanitiser being offered to the NHS for free. 

“Looking back, everybody involved in coordinating or donating to the effort should feel very proud of their rapid response, and how effectively they were able to adjust to remote working to make it happen.”

Rachael Sherratt: “Probably walking down my local shopping street and seeing it empty when lockdown first happened.

“It felt eerie, to have a space that is usually thriving be suddenly so quiet.

“It also shocked me how wide the road is, when you take off parked cars either side
of it. It made me realise that if we can reduce reliance on car ownership, we can open-up Bristol so much more for the people who inhabit it.

“As a working mother, what has been encouraging from this situation is our ability to work from home productively. Flexible working and balancing work and family life is important to many and the last few months have shown it something we all have to, and can, do.”

Lee Bignell: “The onset of Covid-19 saw some huge changes for everyone – uncertainty, the rapid slowing of work flow, the onset of furlough, the daily need to watch the government updates, the working safely with daily changes in policy and advice to essential projects and works – basically everyday felt like Sunday, so there were big adjustments for all of us.

“Having time to do good was a huge positive for us too – we teamed up with the Bristol Food Union to support the local community, which has seen me dropping hot meals and food packages to those in need all over the city every Friday using our fleet of vans.”

James Durie: “Well, I think the first three weeks of lockdown were, for me, the most vivid. I remember a sense of bewilderment tinged with a degree of fear, which I think we were all feeling a bit between lockdown on March 23 and through into April, on both a personal and business level, as things felt they had been turned upside down in a way and a rate of speed no one seemed to have expected.

“As lockdown measures came into effect (and trying to digest the implications of announcement after announcement from government) there was the worry over simple but important things like whether or not home broadband and our own IT systems and internal processes would stand up for our own 200 staff to be able to work from home, as well as, of course, for all our members for what was an unknown period of time ahead. More fundamentally, would the healthcare and food supply and distribution systems be able to cope and pivot to most people operating from home.”

How has your business been affected?

James Woollam: “People are looking for clear guidance on the insurance implications of the virus and on risk management for both lockdown and opening back up, with a myriad of different opinions and sometimes dubious ‘facts’ around, and so we have never been busier; but it is a different type of busy to normal. 

“We realised early on that we needed to communicate with our clients more than ever, and so we built a portal filled with guidance, have provided over a dozen different webinars to different organisations and worked hard to speak personally with every client as often as possible. It has been busy, but I am proud of what we have achieved, and I hope it has made a real difference to our clients.”

Lee Bignell: “We have been incredibly lucky. Although we have seen some work paused, we’ve also seen a massive upturn in enquiries during lockdown from various new sectors which is exciting. As a business we are agile and work in many sectors, so we are in a very fortunate position that we’ve been able to be quite reactive and switch up our focus based on what our clients need.

With many of our clients facing a new challenge, with the introduction of social distancing and increased cleaning requirements, we’ve created a new range of services to help businesses implement Perspex screening, repurpose unused space for extra seating and ensure all of their appliances are cleaned and serviced ready for reopening.”

How do you see the future for your business and the city of Bristol?

James Woollam: “The effect on our turnover is so far relatively muted, but we believe this could change as the government withdraws support to companies later in the year. Our business will make permanent changes: more working from work and flexible working for our staff, more communication through digital methods, and generally more of a digital journey for clients – yesterday we launched our first fully online product, for example.

“Bristol is in a good place to take advantage of some of the likely consumer changes, with booming creative and technology industries. I believe people will also realise that companies that have looked after their staff in this period, are proudly independent and have strong values, are worth supporting more than ever, and so both my company and Bristol generally can benefit from this trend.”

In your opinion what will be the lasting impact of the pandemic on the city?

Rachel Sherratt: “I think we will see businesses adapt – some quicker than others – to the changing scenario and look very different in the coming years.

“Many businesses like ours have realised that working remotely on a large scale can be effective. It’s likely that this will be a catalyst for more flexible and agile working and one that we’re ready to embrace. The lockdown period has, however, also shown us the need and desire for physical interaction. The office is still going to be a place colleagues will come together in creative hubs and to form ideas.

“There are also opportunities – we have seen a rise in industrial and logistics enquires for example. On a practical level I think we will see local communities grow, cycling become more popular and well-being become a key priority. With public anxiety on the use of buses and trains, Bristol will need to continue its investment in cycling infrastructure – and we are well placed to capitalise on that, as Bristol has the highest percentage of cycling commuters for any regional city.”

What is going to need to happen in your opinion, to ensure a successful recovery for the city?

Rachel Sherratt: “For a start, we need to engage all corners of our city into the strategy. There is no roadmap for the situation we find ourselves in now and it is an opportunity for us all to come out of this more diverse, sustainable and stronger.

“The big story is the systemic changes the Covid-19 crisis will bring in the low-carbon economy. We must not forget our commitments to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the One City plan, and ensure we rebuild a Bristol that can unlock opportunities and is more resilient in the longer-term. There is a huge opportunity to reimagine how the city can become more resilient – how it can support economic recovery and accelerate action.”

How have Bristol leaders reacted to the situation from your vantage point?

James Durie: “It has been truly inspiring to see how resilient we are as a business community but also as a city community – when something like this hits you, it tests every facet of how we live and work.

“Some truly remarkable individuals, such as Andy Street, Sue Turner and James Freeman – to name just three – who I believe stepped up to the plate to help do what they felt they, and the organisations they help run, could do to support and protect key workers and some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

“But also, to see the Gold Command across the public health, police, councils and other agencies swing into action with rigour, professionalism and some very steady hands. I think it has brought together all the different parts of the business and employer community to look out and after each other, through weekly One City Zoom meetings and now to start to look and plan for the challenges ahead.”

Tim Bowles: “We are all facing unique challenges at an unprecedented scale; our cities’ public transport services are under immense financial strain due to collapsed passenger numbers and revenues, something which will continue for as long as social distancing regulations are in place. We have also seen a real challenge with the economic impact of lockdown on local employers and residents.

“I’m working closely with the other Combined Authority Mayors across England and we have regular conversations with Ministers, including the Prime Minister and Chancellor. Devolution – and the fact we work so closely with our councils – means that we can take the decisions that are best for the West of England, considering the variety of local circumstances, rather than having a ‘one size fits all’ approach given to us from Whitehall.”

What are businesses telling you are the main challenges they are facing?

James Durie: “In April, we conducted a survey of a thousand businesses and only 16% of them said they would be able to survive if lockdown lasts six months or more.

“Three months in, it is becoming increasingly clear that a continued blanket lockdown isn’t sustainable. The question of how we slowly take the lid off and ease lockdown measures is a difficult one to answer, but there needs to be a really difficult balance between protecting lives and livelihoods, whilst avoiding another spike of course.

“Then there is the human dimension that businesses are grappling with. How to keep the workforce engaged and healthy whilst everyone is working from home? Are we doing enough to promote positive mental health and wellbeing? Things like that.

“Lots of businesses are also thinking positively about the future, despite many challenges they face – looking at how they operate more sustainably, for example.”

What action has your office taken to support businesses and what funds are available? 

Tim Bowles: “We’ve stepped up our business support since March; thanks to devolution we’ve been able provide support for businesses beyond central government’s offerings, in a way which best suits our region’s needs.

“We’ve changed some of our current programmes – for example, our Creative Scale Up initiative has shifted focus from expansion and scaling up to supporting creative sector businesses around survival and resilience. The West of England’s creative sector was thriving before this crisis, so it is absolutely right that we’ve been able to act quickly to protect it and lay the foundations for an even stronger bounce back.

“We’ve launched new programmes where we could see an immediate need – for example, Trading Better Online to help small businesses enhance their web presence by adopting new technology. We’ll soon be launching a new fund to support innovation and we will be helping businesses support employees with their mental health too. Much of this support is available through the Combined Authority’s West of England Growth Hub, which I’ve recently expanded.

“Because I know that this is a worrying time for many residents whose jobs face an uncertain future, I’ve also expanded our Future Bright career coaching programme to cover residents who have seen their jobs affected by the pandemic.”

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