“We’ve got so used to things being taken away from us, that a lot of people don’t know we’ve got rights.”
Bristol is a city divided. Hartcliffe is one of the most deprived parts of Bristol. Quality of life, education, and child poverty are significantly worse than Bristol averages. People’s life expectancy is over 10 years shorter than their Harbourside counterparts.
It’s clear that this situation is unacceptable. But how can we change it?
Community activist Kerry Bailes is shouting this question from Hartcliffe’s rooftops. “We’ve got so used to things being taken away from us, that a lot of people don’t know we’ve got rights.”
Kerry’s parents met in neighbouring Bishopsworth and her grandparents ran a retirement home in Withywood. A lifelong BS13 resident, her roots in the community run deep.
She first turned to activism while pregnant with her son. “I didn’t really know what activism was, but I lived in a local authority flat and it was in really poor condition,” she says, describing the 3-story ivy growing through and destroying her walls. The council continually refused to act. Nevertheless, she persisted. “I researched the Decent Homes Standard. I involved the MP. I argued and argued, and I eventually got everything done.”
Kerry then protested to save local drug and alcohol services, which had lost government funding. The John James Foundation granted Hawkspring Drug and Alcohol service in Hartcliffe £100,000, citing the protest as a huge factor in their decision to do so.
Realising that ordinary people have the power to effect change, Kerry has since been unstoppable in her activism. She takes any opportunity to engage those in power and get them to take notice. Mayor Marvin Rees ignored most of her emails until one meeting in the lead up to Rees’ closure of the Hartcliffe Citizen Service Point. “I turned up to the meeting dressed as a zombie covered in blood with a plaster on my mouth. They’d shut it with two weeks notice. That was the final straw, being told ‘you don’t matter’” she says.
Marvin Rees finally realised that Kerry is a woman who it’s better to have on side and invited her to a two-week work experience in his office, shadowing him and Craig Cheney.
Not long after, she helped save a long-running Knowle West boxing club, led by Knowle West legend Skemer Winters, from closure through a community asset transfer of the building.
More recently, she supported a local mother to appeal against a rejected planning permission, which would have allowed a local school to extend provision for children with autism. “I took her to see our local councillor, told her to write to other councillors on the planning committee, and write statements for full council meetings, and now it’s approved!” Kerry adds, “she had no idea how to do any of that. A few years ago, I didn’t! So hopefully that information will be passed on and people will start having their say.”
Unsurprisingly, Kerry has gained a reputation for being someone who can get things done for her community as well as navigate the political system and speak truth to power. This year she is competing to be selected as one of three Labour party council candidates for Hartcliffe and Withywood for the 2020 elections.
After a BBC Bristol radio presenter aired a disparaging and misogynistic song about Hartcliffe women earlier this year, Kerry says one of her priorities is to change the stereotypes and stigma surrounding Hartcliffe. “It annoys me so much that people think it’s okay to make fun of us.”
At the same time, she’s clear on the issues her community faces. “Domestic abuse is so ingrained in this area. We need to empower women in deprived communities like this to say, ‘I am worth something, I don’t deserve to be treated like that’.” She wants to see a decrease in anti-social behaviour through increased support and amenities for young people. Many have undiagnosed conditions like ADHD, which come with behavioural problems.
“I gave the Society of Merchant Venturers a tour of the most deprived bit of Hartcliffe. A local parent came with some of the kids that have been excluded from school. They pointed at the dilapidated church and said, ‘we want somewhere like that that we can call our own”.
Kerry also wants to improve education and job prospects for young people and adults. She feels positive about the moves to address the housing crisis by fellow Hartcliffe local, Councillor Paul Smith, which will see hundreds of homes built in Hartcliffe and ten years’ worth of construction jobs. “But how will the council future proof jobs once the programme ends?” asks Kerry. “In 10 years, my son’s going to be 16 and will be thinking about what he wants to do.”
She also points out that the area needs tandem school placements, green spaces (and things to do in them), and businesses, so that the increasing population can thrive, beyond just jobs in construction. “Kids here are capable, but they’re told ‘as long as you get a C, you’ll be fine, you’ll get a job. Great, get a C! but if you can get a C you could get a B. And if you could get a B you could get an A! Clifton kids aren’t told to get a C!”
Meanwhile Kerry, who left school without GCSEs, is emphatic that people’s life chances should not be scuppered by not getting the ‘right’ grades at age 16 or by being unable to pay skyrocketing tuition fees. She is keen to see more opportunities for adult education.
Kerry is a tireless fighter. She juggles her activism with motherhood, two jobs, including with perinatal mental health charity Bluebell, and running a breastfeeding group for local women.
How does she look after her own wellbeing?
“I moan! I used to bottle things up. I dunno if it’s to do with being working class, but round here you can’t moan about having a shit life.” That’s just one of many things that Kerry is seeking to change. “Even if you just have a rant to someone – just moan. Get it off your chest.” And then, as is Kerry’s enduring message, try to do something about it.