Bristol: How ‘alternative’ is its local economy?

TurboIsland- smallBristol is famous for doing things differently and its local currency, strong sense of ethics and powerful community action set it apart from the UK’s other core cities. But its image as an ‘alternative’ economy is exacerbating the city’s inequality.

If you were to imagine an alternative local economy, it would probably look something like Bristol. Social enterprises and local businesses shout louder than chain stores in parts of the city centre; you can use its local currency the Bristol Pound to pay for everything from bus fares to business rates; it has fiercely independent high streets and a strong small business sector.

Ethical and alternative finance – from Triodos to the Bristol SITR fund – is tapped into to set up social initiatives, and some of the UK’s most famous environmental organisations, from Sustrans to the Soil Association, have their base here.

Bristol has been named European Green Capital 2015 in part due to its thriving green economy, and its independent mayor George Ferguson has increased the city’s liveability and sense of fun, with initiatives such as Make Sundays Special, which last year saw a water slide installed in the city centre.

Bristol is a city that is proud of its difference, one that wears its values on its sleeve, and where its people have a strong sense of agency and community.

‘It feels more normal here to have conversations about what you care about and to do something about it,’ says Ciaran Munday, director of Transition Bristol and one of the co-founders of the Bristol Pound. ‘There are some exceptional parts of Bristol that are a living example of the alternative.’

‘We need to go back to running things by the people

for the people and have to give up the idea of growth.’

A phoenix from the ashes

One of those exceptional places is Stokes Croft, an area on the edge of the city centre that has always been a magnet for artists and musicians. It was the scene of riots in 2011 when a Tesco store was opened against the wishes of the community. Today the shop is lost amid a plethora of independent and social businesses on a high street where billboards have been replaced with murals, including one reminding passers-by to ‘Think Local, Boycott Tesco’.

Everywhere you look there are signs of a self-managed community that has fought back against corporate and state power to create its own alternative, from the Co-exist Centre to the only public water fountain in the city.

Driving it is the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft (PRSC), which has designated the area a cultural quarter and is setting up a community land trust to secure its future.

Its chair is Chris Chalkley, an economics student in the 1970s who now rails – and acts – against the role of market economics in peoples’ lives. His own china business having been affected by globalisation, he bought up remnants of another victim of global forces – the Staffordshire pottery business – to create Stokes Croft China, which now funds the work of the PRSC. ‘We are a phoenix rising from the ashes,’ he says, adding that ‘enlightened community ownership’ is needed to create a true alternative to the current system. ‘The only way to affect change is to do it where you live’, he says. ‘We need to go back to running things by the people for the people and have to give up the idea of growth.’

He recognises, however, that Stokes Croft is a ‘bubble of genteel niceness’ and in more marginalised places across the city a very different story about economic forces is being played out.

Clare Goff is Editor at New Start magazine

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  • Paul Steeples

    “Top down initiatives such as ‘smart’ or ‘resilient’ cities do not work; growth is finished. What’s needed is a new settlement between rich and poor residents, an economic strategy that prioritises equality, and for the wealth of the city to be distributed more evenly among its residents”.

    I assume this statement is from the author, rather than Paul Krugman or any of the other people quoted in the article. It seems to be full of tendentious and unsupported assertions (who says growth is finished? who needs a new settlement? how does this reflect actual voting patterns or general opinion in the city? it there a consensus among Bristolians that wealth should be distributed more evenly, and does this include those who have the wealth?).

    You actually need to go out and convince people that they want these things, rather than simply and glibly asserting that they do – the recent election gives you no ground to think this at all. You may find this article relevant, particularly this bit: “democracy is not inherently left-wing. If we argue simply for a new decision-making system – Democracy 2.0, Democracy OS – we are not making the essential case for a progressive set of ideals, a particular vision of what we think a better society would look like. We need purpose as well as process”.

  • Sceptic

    “Voluntary sector organisations in particular said that they will no longer tolerate the imbalances in the city, and called for more serious commitments from the council towards precarious neighbourhoods.”

    Of course the true balancing factor in all this used to be strong municipal authorities who were funded properly and had the ability to engender change and where Right to Buy never turned the hardest to let places into blighted sink estates. . When councils aren’t even effectively allowed to generate funds to improve or build new housing stock at true affordable rents you know what the structural power in this country wants. My own view is that in its zeal to secure service contracts the voluntary sector has been complicit in the demise of local government services and quite happy to see it become little more than a ‘skinny’ tier doing statutory services and collecting government revenues. If it really wanted to do anything about the state of cities it could do worse than simply join in when the unions strike against cuts instead of merrily carrying on delivering outsourced contracts as if nothing was happening.

  • Fed up Bristolian

    If you want to do something about this I suggest two things though at a local level they are tricky:

    1. Tackle scourge of employment agencies. 350 and more in city this size is ridiculous and gives unscrupulous employers ample opportunity to exploit.

    2. Build more affordable housing LESS luxury student accommodation. Other day I saw rent ranging from 420 pcm to 780 odd.

    Madness and has inflationary effect on overall rent a tad as these high rents surely have a knock on effect on overall market given all recent developments.

    That will do for starters.

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