Faced with rising inequality, gentrification and a world gone mad, where will Bristol go?
Modern cities face an almost impossible conundrum, which is playing out in metropolises across the Western world. At their best, they are culturally thriving, socially diverse places, open to newcomers, and possessed of their own maverick spirit – something that, in recent memory, has been true of everywhere from Berlin and Manchester, to New York and Barcelona. But when word gets out and the wider world wants a piece of the action, success can very quickly curdle into something much more problematic. We all know the basic script: property places inflate, people get driven out, and before long, yesterday’s atmosphere of creativity and diversity becomes today’s climate of elitism and exclusion. Large swathes of London now fit that picture, as does pretty much the whole of Manhattan; across Europe and beyond, people in countless cities fear that where they live will soon go the same way.
This is the basic juncture at which Bristol finds itself. With London overheating, it is now considered a prime place for people and companies to relocate, and as a result, the city is changing fast. Neighbourhoods like Easton, St Paul’s and Montpelier increasingly offer case-studies in gentrification, while controversies regularly flare up: the fuss kicked up about the redevelopment of the Carriageworks in Stokes Croft; similar disaffection elsewhere about the paltry share of new housing given over to “affordable” homes. All over Bristol, there is a palpable sense of rising inequality being the city’s single biggest issue. And clearly, this is not something abstract and theoretical. Inequality is a matter of the single mother in Lawrence Hill who thinks that Clifton is another world; the community volunteer in St Paul’s who fears that new arrivals have no inclination to get involved in what she does; the young people being pushed further and further out by ever-increasing rents.
You can tell that these are the issues at the heart of the city’s present and future from the fact that both main contenders in the looming mayoral elections endlessly talk about them. Labour’s Marvin Rees warns of the danger of “a fragile society and loose social ties that leave you vulnerable to the type of social disintegration we saw ending in the 2011 summer riots.” The sitting mayor, George Ferguson, insists that “during my first term we have worked tirelessly to address inequality in this city”, and accepts that even if the city is successful on paper, “not everyone in Bristol participates in this.” Take out the miserable issue of parking, and these concerns define the contest.
This is a good thing, obviously. It’s some tribute to Bristol’s innate sense of fairness that its politics has taken this turn, and it means that the mayoral contest actually represents a rare political chance to talk about something meaningful. But the post of mayor actually offers precious few instruments that can be used to grapple with the problems at the core of the city’s politics. Of course, much more social housing would be a start; insisting the city’s employers offer decent wages and conditions would be another step forward. But even the distant promise of some kind of combined authority for Bristol and its wider area might offer no convincing progress: Manchester is leading the way in that field, and there is rising concern that its new power structures might amount to the same old austerity and inequality being overseen in a slightly different way. The truth is that much bigger forces are at work, and Bristol’s fate remains in the hands of the Westminster politicians still pursuing chronically regressive, backward-looking policies – while they themselves are in thrall to an economic model spinning out of control, over the world.
In the end, what really counts in the fight against inequality isn’t this or that election, but an active citizenry, a vibrant local media, and a sense that a city has a clear understanding of what makes it work, and the collective will to try and hold on to it. On all those fronts, Bristol is better placed than a lot of other cities: that’s why so many of us love the place. But in the next ten years, we’ll find out if Bristolians can collectively work out how to blaze a trail away from inequality and exclusion, or whether their city will succumb to the opposite fate: becoming yet another place where creativity and openness have withered away, and all you can hear is the deafening roar of money. No pressure, then….