Could Portas be just the catalyst my neighbourhood needs?

My neighbourhood, Bedminster, has been named as one of 12 Portas pilots in the face of huge competition from 370 larger towns and cities.

In January’s New Start Neil McInroy said he felt that the Portas review on high street shopping missed the point that ‘they (high streets) are intrinsically interdependent and reflect the wider places in which they’re located’. The Greater Bedminster approach addresses that concern in a number of ways.

The Bedminster plan looks beyond the shopping areas and physical environment to the people who live and work here. There’s a central focus on creative industries, media and technology, reflecting the population of the area as it’s evolved over the last 15 years or so.

We are lucky to be home to a range of arts organisations (such as Upfest Europe’s largest urban art festival), many of whom are signed up as partners to the bid with a commitment to use their unique offerings to promote the various shopping areas as exciting and interesting destinations.

The bid likens its aims for Bedminster to those of Shoreditch and expresses a desire to ‘future-proof our local economy by combining the existing retail offer with arts, creative and media based businesses’, embracing the Shoreditch promise to ‘…exploit and eventually explode the gap between art, advertising and entertainment, high street retailing and real estate development’. With Tech City in Shoreditch now regarded as the digital capital of Europe, these are not insignificant ambitions.

When I moved here 30 years ago, it was first-time buyers paradise for what my mum calls the ‘respectable working class’ (i.e. standards but not pretensions). Closely packed terraces of large Victorian family homes, near to town but with big parks, made it a great place to raise my children.

We didn’t need a car and walked everywhere because everywhere you needed was walkable, whether that was the schools, or the city centre where I then worked to the north or the huge industrial estate where my partner still works to the south. The high street behind our house served all our needs and once my babies were born I shopped there every day and still do.

Then about 15 years ago someone went and blabbed that this was a good place to live, with big houses for next to nothing compared to the posher bits of Bristol, and suddenly this long-stable community began to change. I soon felt like the last Bristolian and I knew we’d been gentrified when an organic deli turned up and renamed the neighbourhood.

Now we have a proliferation of restaurants and café bars rammed to the hilt with elderly primigravidas shoving oversized ergonomic buggies into spaces designed for boozers not toddlers; but it’s no bad thing – my kids may be adults now, but their neighbourhood remains their playground just as much as ever.

While my immediate high street has continued to flourish, the various shopping areas in the wider neighbourhood have fallen into decline. The main shopping strip was once equal to a small town centre with the likes of M&S, Woolies and a large Tesco, drawing shoppers from miles around thanks to excellent public transport links. Today it’s a sad shadow of its former self with empty units, charity shops and budget booze outlets, although a few valiant shop owners are trying hard to revive its vibrant past.

Bedminster is a large neighbourhood, geographically caught between massive city-centre redevelopment and a new out-of-town-retail park, so it’s little wonder that its major strip and tributaries have suffered in recent years. Its geography encourages drive-through to the £500m swish Cabot Circus (or ‘town’ as everyone still calls it) rather than drive-to as a destination in itself.

Bedminster now wants to address that and has a vision to create public spaces that people enjoy instead of corridors for cars. It aims to retain its local shoppers, but to also bring back the attraction it once had as a venue for the not so local.

As part of the bid an innovative voluntary landlord and developer group was formed as a partner with a commitment to support the aims both through cooperation and funding, which will hopefully bring some more thoughtful approaches to the way space is developed, rather than ad hoc apartments springing up on every spare inch as we’ve endured these past ten years.

My only fear is that the whole Portas reality TV shenanigans may turn out to be nothing more than a government sponsored publicity stunt. £100k per pilot is not a serious amount of money, but the Bedminster bid already looks like a catalyst for much greater things once the TV hoo-ha has come and gone.


** Back in February I was taken to task for being cynical (moi?) in my blog about the Bristol pound (£B). Suitably chastened I promised I’d stay in touch with the story and report back when the £B launched in May. For the past month the information on the £B website is that the launch has been delayed due to it being a bit trickier than originally thought. There was a Twitter rumour that it will launch in September so I asked the £B people for clarification on their Facebook page. They’ve not replied so nothing to report I’m afraid.**


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