The Bristol Cable
Central ward was a close race between Labour and the Greens in 2016, with a low turnout and just seven votes in it.

Photo: David Griffiths

If a handful of people had voted differently in Central ward at the 2016 election, Labour’s Paul Smith wouldn’t have returned to life as a councillor, having previously done an 11-year stint.

After being elected by just seven votes, Smith became the cabinet member for housing, one of the top council positions, overseeing Labour’s pledges to build more affordable homes. But in late 2020 he resigned to become the chief executive of housing association Elim Housing. Farah Hussain, who ran a post office in Hartcliffe for 15 years and is now a qualified lawyer, was only announced as Smith’s prospective successor shortly before the deadline. 

Just behind Smith in 2016 was Ani Stafford-Townsend of the Green Party, previously the councillor for Cabot ward, which became Central in 2016, who is standing again. The other Green candidate will be Simon Stafford-Townsend. He has campaigned to return Colston Street, where his psychotherapy practice is based, to its historical name of Steep Street. They have strongly criticised Mayor Marvin Rees’ record on transport and for not opposing the expansion of Bristol Airport. 

Another criticism of the council since 2016 has related to a scandal around children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), with the system in Bristol deemed “not fit for purpose” by inspectors in December 2019. Families had to wait months to get education, health and care (EHC) plans, which are crucial for children with SEND to receive extra support at school. The Labour administration held its hands up to failing on this issue, and now appears to have a better handle on the situation. 

One of the campaigners who has been holding the council to account over this, Jen Smith, is running in Central ward for the Liberal Democrats alongside Zak Barker. David Kibble and Richard Clifton are standing for the Conservatives, who, like the Lib Dems, received roughly 15% of the votes in 2016, compared with the Greens’ 31% and Labour’s 40%.

Cabinet member for transport, Kye Dudd, is the remaining Labour councillor for Central, and will be defending his seat. He has been an important figure in the development of Bristol’s new clean air zone (CAZ), and other changes last year to how we move around the city centre, such as closing Bristol Bridge to through traffic, extra cycle lanes and pedestrianising part of the Old City.  

The CAZ will be a major change for the city when it is introduced in October (see boxout). With air pollution, cars, and public transport firmly on the city’s agenda, we spoke to voters and businesses in Central ward about the upcoming changes, and how they might affect their vote. 

Residents and businesses in the clean air zone

People living inside the CAZ with non-compliant vehicles are expected to be able to get a one-year exemption from charges, and be prioritised for financial support. But the zone will still make a difference for those living and working in the centre.

Natasha, who lives in Redcliffe, is a 24-year-old microbiologist for the NHS. She said green issues, including air pollution, are her “highest priorities when thinking about who to vote for”. 

“I was thinking today about the nine-year-old girl that died, and air pollution was listed as her cause of her death – we can’t live in a society like that,” she says. “I just think that if we are living in a polluted area, what’s the hope for anything else.”  

Katie, a first time voter

Katie, 19, is an undecided first-time voter. “Living near the Bearpit, where there is loads of traffic – obviously I do think about air pollution,” she says. But she adds the CAZ probably won’t affect her because she walks and uses buses.

“I am thinking about green issues, but probably other policies hold more sway to be honest – like jobs and more money for the NHS”

Tim, 62, owns vintage shop Urban Fox on Corn Street. This is an area of the centre that has already seen changes, with the pedestrianisation of the Old City and Bristol Bridge being closed to through-traffic. 

“I don’t anticipate [the CAZ] having a big effect because I think most people park in big car parks and walk to somewhere like this. There might be a marginal effect. And I think most people are on board anyway. It’s not going to decimate things,” he says.

Tim from Urban Fox on Corn Street

“No business owner wants to see a decrease in footfall, but overall a clean air zone is something that we need to get on top of… if there’s a little bit of nip and tuck that we need to do to get there, then we have to do that.”

Tim lives outside of Bristol and commutes in, but would be happy to pay the penalty. “It’s the bullet that we have to bite,” he says. “So I wouldn’t punish any party that’s trying to improve air quality.”

Jay, 40, who also manages a shop in the centre, says he is “all for” the CAZ.  “It’s a government target that has to be met, so it’s the government putting the screws on it.

“It’s really hard to tell how it would affect footfall… we serve lots of students, there’s lots of student accommodation nearby and they tend to walk in,” Jay says. He adds that the city needs a better public transport system, but this is made harder by it being privately owned. 

Party pollution pledges

Public transport, air pollution, cars, and walking and cycling have all been hot topics during the election campaign. Labour has been the party to finally implement a CAZ in Bristol, as well as other measures to reduce the dominance of cars in the city. 

On restricting cars, Labour’s manifesto pledges are to roll out at least two Liveable Neighbourhood pilots, which will get surplus funding from the CAZ, and expand the School Streets project to more primary schools. 

Meanwhile, the Greens and Lib Dems have criticised Labour for not taking enough action, or in the case of the CAZ, being too slow to act. They have also proposed other ideas to tackle the issue, such as reintroducing car-free Sundays, and a workplace-parking levy for large businesses, where income is reinvested into public transport, an idea that has been considered in recent years by the council but was recently voted down by councillors. 

In 2016, just 2,600 people voted in Central to elect their councillor, giving the ward one of the lowest turnouts in the city (35.5%). Labour’s margin of victory for the second councillor slot was only seven votes. With Paul Smith now gone, Labour will be extra determined to hold off the other parties, in order to protect the seat of his former cabinet partner Kye Dudd.

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