Bristol: How ‘alternative’ is its local economy?

The cafe at Barton Hill Settlement

A tale of two cities

At Barton Hill Settlement people are too busy negotiating zero hour contracts and changes in welfare rules to fight back. Chief executive Joanna Holmes has seen stress levels among local residents rise dramatically as the impact of austerity and welfare reform hit.

‘People are struggling economically’, she says. ‘While previously they might have had a dream about where they wanted to go in their life and had time to train and change their situation they can’t do that now.’

Barton Hill is on the edge of Bristol city centre and just a few hundred yards from the Temple Quarter Enterprise Zone, one of the city’s key drivers of economic growth. But little attempt is being made to connect the poverty in Barton Hill with the growth being driven by local economic vehicles such as the local enterprise partnership (Lep), Holmes says.

That Bristol is a tale of two cities has become a cliché. The city that makes headlines is the one to which highly qualified people are drawn to from London, taking up the new opportunities in low carbon, high-tech and creative industries and enjoying the lifestyle on offer in places like Clifton and Redland. The city that is not shouted about so much is found south of the river Avon in places like Withywood and Knowle West and around the city centre, where high levels of poverty are deepening. Lower skilled people here have fewer skills that those in other core cities and race inequality is particularly acute.

The city is rightly proud of its localised and green economy and strong levels of community participation, but until it bridges the gaps between its affluent and poor neighbourhoods its credentials as an ‘alternative’ economy are in doubt.

The story should not be about being able to trapeze

in the city centre but about taking chunks out of child poverty’.

‘A pimple on Bristol’s greatness’

Marvin Rees, who stood as Labour’s candidate for Bristol mayor in 2012, calls poverty and inequality the ‘pimple on Bristol’s greatness’ and says that when he points out the city’s less glossy tale, he is accused of being a PR liability.

‘The story should not be about being able to trapeze in the city centre but about taking chunks out of child poverty,’ he says.

Is the city’s desire to present itself as a vibrant, creative and green economy deflecting from its true image and preventing progress towards greater equality?

Those working in community organisations in poor areas are frustrated by a public image of the city that is far removed from the lives of those around them, and by being used as ‘bid candy’ for high profile awards such as Green Capital 2015, only to find themselves excluded from the benefits.

People involved in some of the city’s social enterprises and environmental movements admit that, while they exude openness and acceptance, they are often dominated by white, middle-class people and are not making significant in-roads into levels of inequality.

‘We’re seeing the gentrification of progressive politics’

Indeed, a certain aesthetic emerges when clusters of social and environmental organisations develop, one that by its nature is exclusive. It’s there on the streets of Stokes Croft and in the artisan bakeries and breweries that now proliferate in the city. The benefits of such businesses and organisations as ‘alternatives’ to the mainstream economy are not in doubt; problems arise when this is as far as the ‘alternative’ goes.

Rees describes the problem as the ‘gentrification of progressive politics’, where the terms of the debate are dominated by a particular privileged group.

This situation is not unique to Bristol, but is perhaps found in a more concentrated form in the city. It is a paradox that the very community spirit and entrepreneurial action of those with the time and resources to create social change can sometimes unwittingly create division. The challenge for the city is to use its powerful ‘alternative’ economy to strengthen local connections and build equality.

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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