John Christopher Savage

Doctor of Laws

12 July 2005 - Orator: Mr Barry Taylor

Mr Vice-Chancellor: John Savage

As one might expect of a city with a thousand-year history, Bristol has had its ups and downs.  On balance, the 30 or 40 years after the war were among the ups.  There were disasters, of course, associated either with local matters such as bad planning decisions and glaring social inequalities, or with national issues such as seismic shifts in the economy.  But by and large, this was a period when Bristol seemed strong enough to weather the storms.  Even when the city began to haemorrhage manufacturing jobs in the ’70s and ’80s, the sheer diversity of its economy and the influx of banking, insurance, high-tech and media companies meant that overall, Bristol fared better than most. 

But towards the end of the ’80s, the picture darkened.  Bristol’s confidence, some might say ‘complacency’, started to crack.  Boom was giving way to bust, and long-held suspicions that Bristol was not quite punching its weight came to the fore.  Other cities were felt to be stealing a march on Bristol by fighting harder for inward investment, tackling disadvantage with greater energy and finding the sheer civic willpower to develop the kind of amenities that give cities their edge. 

By the time the next recession hit the UK, in 1990/91, Bristol’s traditional resilience had been weakened and the city’s economy sustained structural damage.  Public discourse became riddled with pessimism and recrimination. 

The city was getting a bad press.  In May 1990, a journalist from The Times wrote that Bristol had declined so far that it had become ‘one of the most ugly, depressing places in Britain’.  This was an exaggeration, but not a gross enough one to be ignored.  Later the same year, Bristol’s Evening Post concluded that the city was ‘bottom of the barrel’.  And in 1991, The Independent, reflecting on the plight of UK cities generally in the face of recession, said that ‘For former boom towns like Bristol, the picture looks especially bleak’.  The pride seemed to go out of the place, along with so many people’s jobs and hopes.  The city’s claim to be the economic and cultural powerhouse of the region began to sound hollow.

And yet a decade later, journalists started telling an altogether different story.  This time, in 2001, The Independent hailed Bristol as a ‘Beautiful, historic city with a vibrant social and cultural scene’.  The following year, The Sunday Telegraph said that ‘The Bristol of 2002 is alive and well and kicking like a can-can girl’.  And by 2004, the Financial Times felt justified in declaring that Bristol had become ‘The UK’s most economically successful regional capital outside the south-east’ and that ‘Bristol’s booming economy is throbbing, with gross domestic product per head higher than any English city except London’.

What accounted for this amazing turnaround?  The answer is, of course, complex and way beyond my powers to unravel.  But one certainty is that Bristol’s fortunes looked up when business, local government and the voluntary and community sectors started to relinquish traditional hostilities in favour of partnership.

There was nothing sentimental about this.  Partnership was a practical response to the threats that had been growing since the late ’80s, and it was an approach that only gained credence thanks to hard work and persistence.  Under the leadership of some imaginative and determined individuals, senior players from all sectors came together to consider what needed to be done.  The Bristol Initiative was born and, in 1989, John Savage, a businessman from London, was appointed Chief Executive.  Four years later the Initiative merged with the Chamber of Commerce, which now comprises a core element in Business West, of which John is Executive Chairman.

Mr Vice-Chancellor, John Savage has faced huge challenges during his 16 years here.  Arguably, the most difficult has been sustaining bridges between different sectors so that their co-operation has had a chance to deliver tangible results.  At the time of John’s arrival, too many business people tended to dismiss the City Council as a bastion of the Left with a shaky grasp of the needs of the private sector and of its importance to Bristol’s future.  For their part, too many city councillors were inclined to caricature business people as selfish capitalists with little appreciation of the needs of local communities.

Together with like-minded people from both sectors and from a wider constituency, John articulated a fresh message – one based on mutual acceptance, or even respect, and on a broader, more holistic vision for Bristol that made sense to people with different perspectives and values.  Again, there was nothing happy-clappy about this; it was, and remains, a tough, pragmatic stance requiring discipline and nerve.  It recognises that cities need a broad spectrum of successful businesses if they are to thrive, and that economic strength and social justice fit together.

There was a powerful moment in John’s early days when business leaders, the City Council and representatives of many local communities of interest came together to campaign for fairer Government funding for Bristol.  The campaign had limited impact on the Government, but it did show that disparate groups could work together for a common goal.  It also demonstrated that The Bristol Initiative was about backing local government, not bypassing it.

Bristol has come to be recognised nationally as a place where collaboration works.  More than 20 partnerships, often formalised as charitable companies limited by guarantee, have been established and have wrought a transformation.  John Savage has been closely involved in virtually all of them.  If it were not for such partnerships, Bristol would probably not have a cultural development partnership that has inspired everything from the At-Bristol hands-on science complex to next year’s ambitious celebrations of Brunel’s 200th birthday.  It is unlikely that the Broadmead shopping centre would be in line for a £500 million investment.  The development of Harbourside would probably have stalled.  And in a whole range of other fields, from promoting sustainability to tackling homelessness and from tourism development to strategic planning, Bristol and the sub-region would not be the dynamic force it has become.  John would be the first to acknowledge that many challenges remain, but there is now an almost palpable sense that the city is doing well.       

Mr Vice-Chancellor, I could have made a slightly different case for awarding this former High Sheriff of Bristol an honorary degree.  It would be based on his wider service to the arts, to business and to education, with the support of his partner, Glenys, who is here today.  There is no time now to convey the full breadth of John’s contribution, but it ranges from chairing the West of England Learning and Skills Council and The Churches Council for Industrial and Social Responsibility to acting as treasurer to a local pre-school group. 

I have chosen to focus on his role in establishing and maintaining partnerships because its impact has been fundamental and because it is driven by an inspiring and caring view of cities.  It is one that acknowledges interdependencies – between city and region, between city centre and outlying estates, between sectors and between individuals.  It takes on board the fact that while Bristol has needed the sort of economic regeneration that all of Europe’s most dynamic and creative cities have enjoyed, true success involves more than loft apartments, designer coffee bars and something called ‘the knowledge economy’.  It recognises the necessity for a strong and inclusive social fabric and the creation of opportunities for all people and communities, including those that are not so advantaged.  And it appreciates that while the processes of city government can be slow, that is the price you pay for democracy.    

Mr Vice-Chancellor, I present to you John Christopher Savage as a man of vision and determination who has worked tirelessly to make Bristol a better city for all its residents and who is eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.


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