Bristol: How ‘alternative’ is its local economy?

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Photo courtesy of the PRSC

Bridging the divide

An event organised by New Start, the Centre for Local Economic Strategies and the New Economics Foundation and hosted by Bristol’s voluntary sector umbrella body Voscur in the city in July brought together representatives from the public, private and social sectors to discuss the need for a more inclusive local economy.

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.

Many in the city would like to see the local enterprise partnership be more explicit about what it is doing around economic inclusiveness, for the economy to be more closely structured around those in disadvantage, and for local job opportunities to be tied into economic initiatives, such as the construction of the new arena.

One delegate asked: ‘Where is the strategic power at local level? Despite loads of money the patterns of imbalance remain much the same.’

The city’s mayor George Ferguson is clear about the scale and level of inequality and said that more needs to be done to ensure people in more marginalised communities can access good quality jobs.

Di Robinson, service director for neighbourhoods and communities at Bristol Council, says that the council is open to the challenge of joining the city up and having different kinds of conversations to make that happen. It has recently begun to work with the city’s voluntary and community sector in a more strategic way, by pooling its grant money and co-designing a programme for greater impact.

The launch of Bristol Energy later this year will bring jobs, and allow the council to deal more directly with fuel poverty.

‘If anywhere is to have the cross-sector conversations

about what a true local economic alternative looks like, it is Bristol’

A new social settlement

But does the structure of the local economy need to be changed more radically for its image as an alternative economy to match its reality? Could its focus on growth and middle class liveability be replaced by a more inclusive vision?

Unless it makes more explicit efforts, the city is in danger of drifting toward even greater imbalance, at a time when even the most conservative of economic organisations, the IMF, is warning of the dangers of inequality.

Economist Paul Krugman has called cities the ‘laboratories of social change’. Bristol has an opportunity to lead the way towards an economy that does not leave its most vulnerable to the vagaries of market forces or to the crumbs from its growth machine.

Top down initiatives such as ‘smart’ or ‘resilient’ cities are not working; growth isn’t budging poverty. 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.

Back at Barton Hill Settlement, Joanna Holmes worries about a return to the Victorian model of charity that prevailed when the organisation first opened its doors in 1911, as the UK return to Victorian levels of inequality and food banks become the solution.

The Settlement Movement that created her organisation and others across the UK saw rich volunteers living alongside those with disadvantage in an attempt to bridge the divide and create structural economic and social change. It laid the foundations for social work in the UK and influenced the creation of the welfare state.

In the 21st century, former settlement houses are enterprising community development organisations, but they fear they are falling backwards. As the welfare state is dismantled, how could rich and poor neighbours within a city work together collaboratively to produce a more equal society? How can those creating wealth within a city ensure it is shared?

In Anna Coote’s paper on a new social settlement, she envisions an economy founded on solidarity and collectivity. There are glimpses of such an economy emerging in Bristol at the Knowle West Media Centre, as it develops a collaborative enterprise culture rooted in place and community.

Perhaps the systemic forces of globalisation, of consumerism and inequality will prove too strong for local activity to change on its own, but if anywhere is to have the cross-sector conversations about what a true local economic alternative looks like, it is Bristol.

Across our cities the impact of our addiction to economic growth is mapped out in the divisions of wealth that exist. We are reaching the end of understanding what economic growth can do, but still seeking the pioneers that will show us where to go now.

Clare Goff is editor of New Start magazine
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3 Comments

  • 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”. http://www.ippr.org/juncture/post-politics-and-the-future-of-the-left

  • 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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