Bristol is famous for doing things differently and its local currency, strong sense of ethics and powerful community action set it apart from the UK’s other core cities. But its image as an ‘alternative’ economy is exacerbating the city’s inequality.
If you were to imagine an alternative local economy, it would probably look something like Bristol. Social enterprises and local businesses shout louder than chain stores in parts of the city centre; you can use its local currency the Bristol Pound to pay for everything from bus fares to business rates; it has fiercely independent high streets and a strong small business sector.
Ethical and alternative finance – from Triodos to the Bristol SITR fund – is tapped into to set up social initiatives, and some of the UK’s most famous environmental organisations, from Sustrans to the Soil Association, have their base here.
Bristol has been named European Green Capital 2015 in part due to its thriving green economy, and its independent mayor George Ferguson has increased the city’s liveability and sense of fun, with initiatives such as Make Sundays Special, which last year saw a water slide installed in the city centre.
Bristol is a city that is proud of its difference, one that wears its values on its sleeve, and where its people have a strong sense of agency and community.
‘It feels more normal here to have conversations about what you care about and to do something about it,’ says Ciaran Munday, director of Transition Bristol and one of the co-founders of the Bristol Pound. ‘There are some exceptional parts of Bristol that are a living example of the alternative.’
‘We need to go back to running things by the people
for the people and have to give up the idea of growth.’
A phoenix from the ashes
One of those exceptional places is Stokes Croft, an area on the edge of the city centre that has always been a magnet for artists and musicians. It was the scene of riots in 2011 when a Tesco store was opened against the wishes of the community. Today the shop is lost amid a plethora of independent and social businesses on a high street where billboards have been replaced with murals, including one reminding passers-by to ‘Think Local, Boycott Tesco’.
Everywhere you look there are signs of a self-managed community that has fought back against corporate and state power to create its own alternative, from the Co-exist Centre to the only public water fountain in the city.
Driving it is the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft (PRSC), which has designated the area a cultural quarter and is setting up a community land trust to secure its future.
Its chair is Chris Chalkley, an economics student in the 1970s who now rails – and acts – against the role of market economics in peoples’ lives. His own china business having been affected by globalisation, he bought up remnants of another victim of global forces – the Staffordshire pottery business – to create Stokes Croft China, which now funds the work of the PRSC. ‘We are a phoenix rising from the ashes,’ he says, adding that ‘enlightened community ownership’ is needed to create a true alternative to the current system. ‘The only way to affect change is to do it where you live’, he says. ‘We need to go back to running things by the people for the people and have to give up the idea of growth.’
He recognises, however, that Stokes Croft is a ‘bubble of genteel niceness’ and in more marginalised places across the city a very different story about economic forces is being played out.