Published: 17th Sep 2019

From Banksy to Massive Attack to Aardman Studios, Bristol has a well-earned reputation for grassroots creativity — but an obsession with building expensive apartments in the city centre is forcing artists and creatives out.

NewStart met Jack Gibbon, the founder of the charity and social enterprise, Bricks, to discuss the fightback.

Prior to setting up Bricks, Jack was working with emerging Bristol artists who were questioning how to make what they do sustainable so they can have a deeper impact within communities.

Traditionally, it has almost been seen as policy that artists will be happy to just use temporary or meanwhile spaces — but this offers little security.

It’s a mentality which led to aspirations of buying their own building. The group then received research and development funding from the Arts Council and started looking at different models for bringing their grassroots plan to fruition.

‘We want to pay a mortgage rather than always being at risk of landlords cashing in and moving us on,’ says Jack.

The vision doesn’t just include artists, either. Different community enterprises who are already paying rent elsewhere in the city, such as dance groups and nurseries, would use the building and help pay off the mortgage.

Bricks recently bid for a former city centre police station which, on paper, would have been the perfect vehicle for what Bricks hoped to achieve. Predictably, and in a signal to what they are up against, the police decided to sell to property developers instead.

‘Bristol is a very creative city and I love living here,’ says Jack, ‘But there are people now leaving to go to other cities because it’s getting so expensive.

‘It feels a given that we’re going to be creative, when it really isn’t,’ he says.

‘The picture could change very quickly.’

The London spillover

A spillover of London creatives who have been priced out of the capital has meant demand for apartments at the mid-to-higher end of the market has risen sharply in Bristol —  and land prices have skyrocketed to feed the demand.

Community spaces are now being underfunded and the groups who use them don’t have the mixed-income models to be more resilient in the face of development, so those spaces are now being lost.

‘We need places to meet each other and socially interact and build bonds. That’s how society is built,’ says Jack, adding that the ‘perpetual anxiety’ of whether or when a space may be lost means artists struggle to set down roots.

‘For artists, there’s a feeling we’ll go into a place temporarily just to precipitate the next development, whether that’s student housing or something else,’ he says.

Crucially, he adds that they aren’t able to receive any of the value that he feels they help to generate in an area.

‘We all bring social value to an area. But if you don’t own the property then the landowners benefit from that.’

‘If you have a permanent space you can think much further ahead. We can bring in different grant funding, employ more people and earn income through other routes such as desk space or a café — and you can invest in the building.’

The right type of housing

Bristol sells itself on its creativity with housing developers knowing that people want to live there because of how synonymous the city is with grassroots art.

But there is a danger that this reputation is being taken for granted.

Jack believes Bricks didn’t secure the police station site because they didn’t offer enough money, even though they put forward a competitive sum (over £1m) and had a mortgage in place as well as social investors on board.

‘Generally, anything that can be housing is being turned into housing,’ he says, ‘Whether that’s the right type of housing for the area or not,’

‘The council could have taken a stronger view but, ultimately, they aren’t the owner of the site.’

However, Jack says Bricks is in conversation with the council to see how they can support them find a space and they are also open to collaborations and partnerships with developers to create new spaces for community, creativity and social enterprise within developments in the city.

‘At the moment the council are selling off so many of their buildings — this could be a good opportunity to sell some of them to charities like us.’

Even though Bricks’ vision for the police station fell through, Jack says they are still focused on ‘getting the conversation changed’.

One of the main obstacles that they have to overcome with landlords or local politicians, is the view that artists can’t generate income.

‘There’s a perception that artists are “on the want” and want free stuff,’ says Jack.

‘That’s sometimes a willing misconception’, he adds. ‘We want to buy a building, and have mortgage and investment lined up to do so, so it’s more a case of what do we want the future of our city to look like.’

This is the final part of a series on Bristol and innovation. Read the previous three parts below.

Part One – The five year Bristol Housing Festival is imagining a new city.

Part Two – Modular homes in back gardens could be the housing revolution Bristol needs.

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