Bristol – a divided city?

Bristol – a divided city was the subject of a short documentary produced by BBC One for Inside Out West (sadly no longer available to view on iPlayer). The story is one of a growing city, one that on first glance seems prosperous and wealthy, but once you scratch beneath the surface and move out of the centre of the city, a poorer, less wealthy and altogether different kind of city is revealed. The programme served to illustrate just how different people can experience the same city, how different areas of a city are excluded from the growth and opportunities that others benefit from and how so far we have largely failed to provide solutions that make a real, long-term difference. Sally Challoner, BCC reporter, provided a picture of the divided city with a snapshot of some truly shocking statistics outlining just how many children live in poverty in our so called prosperous city – 25% across the city as a whole, but with massive differences depending on where you live – 53% in Lawrence Hill and 34% in Southmead, but only 1% in Henleaze.

The quote below is from Sally’s reflections in the programme on growing up in Hartcliffe and so neatly sums up the reality facing many people in Bristol –

“Of course, growing up in poverty you don’t really know any different. It’s only when you go out into the wider world that you realise that maybe your education wasn’t great, your family doesn’t have any business contacts to give you an idea of how to get into the employment market, your parents can’t help you with a deposit to get you onto the housing ladder, things like that. So you start out life with a disadvantage and spend years just trying to catch up.”

In the programme itself and in a Radio Bristol discussion the same day there were two key points raised that I thought I’d explore further, as I believe they are both flawed in their explanations and solutions:

  • With a strong economy, providing more jobs, everyone will benefit.
  • We need more money & power from government to solve the problems of poverty in our city.

The first point was made by a Tory MP and is an often quoted response to poverty and social exclusion – if we just provide growth and more jobs everyone will eventually benefit. Indeed, it’s the very argument used by the Local Enterprise Partnership and the business community for focusing our economic plans on existing growth sectors and areas rather than having anything real to say about areas and communities traditionally excluded from the benefits of growth. I am firmly signed up to the school of thought that says ‘trickle-down’ economics doesn’t work, just providing lots of jobs won’t solve poverty in our cities. Of course it helps and a growing economy is certainly better than one in recession, but growth on its own does not provide opportunities for all people and communities, it doesn’t overcome the problems that exist in the poorer areas of our cities. If it did, the growth experienced in the 1980s and beyond would have changed the social and economic map of Bristol. Instead, we find the same areas of Bristol featuring in the most deprived areas of the country now as we always have, the same ten communities with high poverty indices now as 10, 20, 30 years ago. The sooner decision makers and politicians in Bristol accept this the sooner we can move on from flawed policy approaches that clearly do not work.

The second point was made by Bristol’s Mayor, George Ferguson, and whilst I would agree that more money and/or greater ability and power to do things differently in Bristol would be a help, it will only work if we stop seeing poverty as something completely separate to economic development and growth. It reminds me of the debate about environmental issues 20 years ago, when environment was seen as separate, something that should be dealt with separately and not relevant to the council’s core business. Putting things into neat little silos is not the answer, it just makes it easier for everyone to ignore it or assume it’s someone else’s problem. That’s what used to happen to environmental issues, and it’s what we are in danger of doing with issues relating to poverty. Surely part of the answer has to be using what resources and power we already have to address poverty as part of every policy and strategy area. Why treat it separately?

Other areas seem to have taken up the mantle of combining economic development and poverty, of creating Strategic Economic Plans through their LEPs that have alleviating poverty and social exclusion as the main purpose of their plans – see an earlier blogpost I wrote on this for some examples – (Consigning trickle down to the dustbin of poverty). The challenge in Bristol is how we make this happen when the current approach appears to be about creating silos of activity – poverty according to the LEP is not their problem, someone else is dealing with that, they are just about jobs and growth. How do we encourage the business community and the LEP to see alleviating poverty as integral to the growth of the city region, to increasing out prosperity as a city and to truly achieving the potential that the whole city has? How do we ensure that future City Deal’s, Strategic Economic Plans, bids for funding and Council strategies and plans all have addressing poverty at the heart of them? A tall order no doubt, but until we do, then we are consigning the same communities to living in poverty, in a world where the divide between rich and poor is ever increasing.

10 thoughts on “Bristol – a divided city?

  1. “Trickle down” reminds me of “the crumbs from the rich mans table”, it really is an obscenity. I think politicians should be honest and say that things are not going to be so good in the future and we should all get used to it. This is a different and fast changing World and our place in the World is slipping. We should concentrate on dishing out what we have more fairly. It seems weird that record numbers of people are flying off on holiday whilst record numbers are using food banks. Priorities seem all wrong. Food on the table, a roof over your head were my parents generations concerns, not the latest smart phone. We need to get real. Those with most will have to give up most, and I’m certainly not saying we should all be equal, far from it, but the rewards for success are far too great. I’m neither advocating throwing money around, we’ve just seen that it not only does not work but breeds resentment. Give everybody a fair chance but accept that not all will succeed. If everybody does their best, nobody can ask any more!


  2. I don’t think Bristol is alone in being a city where poverty sits alongside affluence, particularly when you move out from the centre. Edinburgh has always struck me as such a city – the centre is beautiful and full of tourism & commerce, but take a short bus ride out and it isn’t long before you see boarded-up shops and much-less desirable architecture. London is the same, and even parts of Birmingham fit the bill – it really is just a couple of streets between major attractions such as the ICC & Sea World and worn-down residential dwellings.

    Maybe this is the nature of cities? I think Danny Dorling mentioned this phenomenom in ‘All That Is Solid’ when discussing London: historically, poor and rich alike used to live reasonably close together, but as wealth inequality has grown so have the differences between where different classes live become starker. This then leads to gentrification; the rich don’t like their property values drepressed by the poor. (I think I’m remembering all this correctly…!)

    Absolutely agree that you can’t treat ‘poverty’ as a separate issue. Indeed, we shouldn’t treat ANY issue in a silo. Joined up thinking is difficult, though, if only because there is so much emphasis on different budget lines rather than a ‘communal pot’ (for want of a better phrase) that all departments jointly use to affect change together. We need a cultural shift towards collaboration rather than competition, perhaps?

    Lots to think about in this blog, Tessa. Thanks for sharing!


    • Thanks Neil, I am sure you are right about other cities being similar, it’s just we so often promote Bristol as this wonderful place (which it is), but we forget it’s not like that for everyone. Absolutely agree with your comment about collaboration and the need for cultural shift, collaborative leadership is perhaps the way forward.


      • Tessa

        I tend to agree with Neil that Bristol isn’t alone in being a city where poverty sits alongside affluence. However, the dividing lines in Bristol are particularly stark in some places. Take the A38 Stokes Croft/Cheltenham Road, for instance: on one side prosperous Kingsdown, Cotham and Redland, on the other not so wealthy Montpelier and St Paul’s.

        In addition, there are generally marked differences between the areas north of the River Avon and south of it, as I think you’ve pointed out elsewhere.


  3. Tessa
    Thanks very much for this article, I missed the BBC West programme but my thoughts yesterday, after a LEP event for the voluntary sector on social inclusion, echoes the same feelings. After decades thinking from the business world & policy makers hasn’t changed, just creating jobs & arranging for them to get qualifications (the only measures of success) for those excluded from the market doesn’t deal with the realities of life; such as zero hour contracts with uncertainty of pay, conditions & hours, little choice of range of jobs, lack of progression within employment & lack of growth across the city and for all employment/ business sectors rather than the chosen few.
    Last week at another event participants we’re considering how business growth could be supported for particularly excluded communities, again there was a belief that not enough businesses or business networks came into local communities to understand the real day to day issues for small local businesses or individuals, rather there was an expectation for communities to go to big business & financiers, a one way street mentality;
    Thanks again for your comments & I’ll now watch Sally Challanor’s story.


    • thank you for your comments, I think you are spot on with your thoughts on this, accepted solutions seem to be too simplistic for what is an incredibly complex issue. More support for and engagement from local communities might help all of us to understand the problems so much better, to provide solutions and opportunities that actually meet the needs of those communities instead of reinforcing existing processes and beliefs.


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