This is one of a series of opinion pieces from local campaigning groups, about the key promises and commitments they’ll be looking for from the different parties in the upcoming elections.
A park to walk in, a library to read in, a community centre. Our ‘them and us’ divides are less easy to uphold when you’re rubbing shoulders. Shared spaces have proved their worth during the pandemic, adapting for localised responses. They may not be much, but they’re ours.
Those of us from poorer backgrounds are accustomed to settling for second best, grateful for small generosities. When we bring up the subject of investment in our locality, at best we can expect to be humoured. At worst, we are stonewalled or told to fend for ourselves. After all, the country’s broke don’t ya know?
We believe there’s no money to make things better because, well, we have no money ourselves.
An asset like Bristol Beacon deserves public investment though, right? A £20m boost in 2007-9, supported with £13m from the local authority, made sense because ‘we own it’. A £45m transformation plan in 2014 was supported by £10m from Bristol City Council, because ‘it’s going to be world class’. As costs rose to £48.8m in 2019, the council underwrote £12m, to enable the project to start as planned. The announcement of costs doubling to £107m in 2021 was met with a promise of further public subsidy because ‘there’s no other option’.
As 2020 data shows, Bristol City Council’s property portfolio consists of more than 1,500 properties: approximately 250 community spaces like libraries, parks and leisure centres, and 117 concessionary lettings, including youth clubs, community farms and local centres. In spite of such assets being critical to the One City Plan, investment in their upkeep stays firmly off the agenda. Over two phases, £127m for Beacon’s 290,000 annual audience is £437 per head. Were comparable capital investment made in all publicly owned assets, Trinity alone, with 60,000 footfall, would be owed £24m – a sum that could fix up concessionary lettings citywide.
Primrose Granville, Chair of Malcolm X Community Centre, says that Bristol’s venues are “simply asking for equity in funding distribution from the council, for being caretakers of their spaces.
“What about the other council-owned community spaces across the city that exist in need of care and repair? Do they not deserve some funding to serve their respective users? These are spaces that cater largely to the city’s marginalised communities and would be grateful for a fraction of that colossal figure.”
We’re told investment is coming, with promises of devolved funds for capital investment regionally, yet WECA funds remain a mystery. Schemes such as the Community Ownership Fund look good on paper, but with the need to raise comparable match-funding, leveraging such funds is rare.
When our library or youth club closes, or our community centre remains dilapidated until it is eventually sold, we lack clout individually to fight back. Some take action to save a space, with mixed success. Some have tried so many times they’ve lost the strength to argue. The issue is complex and we all have problems to deal with – even Bristol City Council has been selling off publicly owned assets to plug rising gaps in revenue funding.
With local elections coming up, it’s time for Bristol’s communities to say we want our fair share of ‘Build Back Better’. We can rebrand a concert hall or topple a statue but, if we are to exorcise the spirit of Colston, we must demand a commitment from all electoral candidates to parity of investment. Funding so our community assets can leverage available national match-funding for asset purchase, repair and renovation, COVID-secure measures, accessibility improvements, digital technologies and green initiatives.
We need to give these assets a fighting chance of still being here in decades to come. Not as dilapidated liabilities clinging to life, but successful hubs facilitating good health, wellbeing and positive relations between communities as they grow and diversify. So they can create vital paid jobs, and contribute to our economic prosperity and collective recovery. We need £100m for the hundreds of beacons across our neighbourhoods.
Want to help? Write to your local Councillor or MP about the importance of capital grant support for a local building that’s close to your heart, using the template on Trinity’s website. Visit trinitybristol.org.uk/100beacons for more info.