Bristol: How ‘alternative’ is its local economy?
July 28, 2015
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.