Published: 14th Feb 2017

People, Places and Spaces: A Bristol perspective By Paul Hassan

Over 200 participants from community groups, community anchor organisations and local authority staff and politicians from across Bristol gathered at City Hall on the 4th February to discuss and deliberate the future of key council services and assets.

Despite the gloomy background of austerity and a potential drastic cut in the council’s budget of £100m over the next five years, delegates enthusiastically discussed and deliberated how the councils’ pledge to put more of its resources and services into the hands of community groups could work in practice.

Bristol city council made clear in its introduction to the recent city-wide consultation on its five year corporate strategy that it was in the process of a significant reconfiguration of existing service provision and traditional activity support and was minded to seek community-led solutions across some of this existing provision.

In a recent press statement Bristol’s mayor Marvin Rees said, ‘The council is dramatically rethinking its role in the city, anticipating less direct provision of services and a bigger role in helping others – including community and voluntary groups, businesses and citizens – get things done. It is likely to mean more joining up of services around the city, involving citizens and organisations in running all or part of some public services.’

Locality’s south west team identified an urgent need for a more detailed examination of how this transformation to ‘community-led’ could occur, particularly as the city was facing such huge cuts in funding allied to commensurate loss of expertise as staff numbers were reduced.

After discussions with chief executives from major community anchor organisations, Locality proposed a day-long event to investigate how this transformation could proceed in a manner that would safeguard the quality of the existing services and activities and their long term sustainability.

We invited community entrepreneurs, activists and former local authority leaders from across the country, as well as Bristol, who have been instrumental in the transformation of council-led services, to share their experiences, through interactive workshops and panel discussions. Participants came from across the city from neighbourhoods as diverse as Stockwood, Avonmouth, St Pauls, Knowle West and Bishopston.

National exemplars who contributed to the debate included Sona Mahtani and Narendra Makanji from the Selby Trust in London and Andy Jackson from the Heeley Development Trust in Sheffield.

Participants had the opportunity not only to reflect on local good practice but to consider and explore various community-led models that have worked in other parts of the country and had achieved effective integration and delivery of neighbourhood support and related services, such as libraries and parks.

Delegates specifically considered challenges on the road to developing these new models across the city over the next decade and examined opportunities provided through the implementation of successful community enterprise models.

A central theme to these discussions was the new sense of empowerment communities are feeling in the city, moving away from narratives focussed on ‘need’ and ‘disadvantage’ to instead identifying the existing assets communities have, and not only physical assets such as buildings and land but their collective skills and experiences.

Locality’s report, Places and Spaces: The future of community asset ownership is relevant to this agenda. At its heart is a proposal for a £1bn community asset investment plan for England composed of funding from the dormant assets commission and a range of other place-based investment strands.

Bristol would be well placed to benefit from this new investment, should the government be minded to initiate such a programme, ensuring assets and services valued by local communities are not allowed to deteriorate through lack of public revenue or are ultimately privatised to fix short term financial gaps.

  • Paul Hassan is development manager at Locality South West