Published: 26th Jul 2015

bristol-landscapeBristol provides fertile ground for innovative social action from a range of groups. As such, it offers an opportunity to explore how ‘place’ can build better local economies. Kat Wall, who co-ordinates the NEON Bristol group, wrote the following report

We spoke to 21 carefully identified and very different key change-makers, from small business, the voluntary, local council, and community activist sectors in Bristol to tease out which common factors enable – and which ones block – the success of some of the most innovative, pre-figurative attempts to systemically re-shape the local economy, Their insights are discussed in this study of the role of place in unlocking local economies. Some clear themes emerged:

Three overriding common factors enable these change initiatives to succeed across all these areas:

  • the people who dedicate their time and skills to these activities,
  • pre-figurative action demonstrating alternatives in practice;
  • the endorsement of those with power and resources in support of these activities.

Conversely, three overriding common factors challenging the success of these initiatives:

  • a lack of resources (both time and money);
  • the nature, culture and process of organising for change;
  • the barriers posed by those with power and the systems that support them.

‘Inequalities in power, influence, and resources

deeply affect who has access to shape the future of Bristol’

What we found

‘A tale of two cities

– Helen Holland, Leader of the Labour Group, Bristol City Council

Bristol is presented to the world as a city at the cutting edge – as European Green Capital 2015, as a City of Sanctuary for refugees and asylum seekers, as ‘the best place to live in Britain’. The city has a strong history of rebellion and activism with a tradition of doing things differently. It is home of some of the large sustainability NGOs such as Sustrans and the Soil Association as well as innovative, alternative, pre-figurative initiatives like the Bristol Pound (a local currency) and the Bristol Cable (a cooperative newspaper). There is ‘something about Bristol – a creativity, a willingness to experiment, a desire to be different’ (Chris Sunderland, Real Economy Cooperative) that drives change.

But there are ‘big differences across different areas of the city – not everyone is experiencing [these] benefits’ (Tamsin Evans, United Communities Housing Association). Whilst Bristol is the third wealthiest city in the country, there are pockets of high deprivation. It is a ‘divided city’ (Paul Hassan, VOSCUR) in terms of poverty and opportunity, with wide inequalities along class, race and geographical lines. In parts of the city, where industry has collapsed, unemployment is high, and racism prevalent, the ‘story of Bristol doesn’t ring true’ (Helen Holland, Leader of the Labour Group, Bristol City Council). The rhetoric doesn’t match the lived reality for many in the city – whilst as a city awards may be won, titles may be given and stories may be told, there is a lived experience of another city, which seems in many ways like a world away from this ‘Green Capital’ which has made headlines across the globe.

It is important to be aware of this as context to the forthcoming discussion of enablers and barriers to change. The background inequalities in the city, the capture by the centre of the narrative of Bristol, the priorities of elites within the city and within its social movements all play into our understanding of what change is taking place, what change is possible, and what ‘socially constructed silences’ are at work (George Monbiot, speaking at Bristol Festival Ideas, March 2015). Whilst there are many exciting change initiatives taking place in the city working for social justice and sustainability, which have the potential to unlock the local economy and release innovation these inequalities in power, influence, and resources deeply affect who has access to shape the future of Bristol.