Blog Action Day this year is all about inequality, an issue I have written about several times on this blog in relation to Bristol, my home city, and its many contradictions. On the surface, a prosperous and wealthy city, but also one that suffers contradictions of poverty and inequality of opportunity. Too many people only see what they want to see and seem happy to sweep the difficult issues under the carpet, whilst others shout from the sidelines about the injustice of it all. Politicians and business leaders play at the edges of the issues, but seem far more focused on other things and particularly keen to promote the best bits of the city, forever telling us that Bristol is a great place to live. But sadly that image is only for some, not for all who live here. Bristol certainly has a great deal to offer but perhaps suffers a little from complacency and a misguided belief that somehow growth will benefit everyone and everything will be alright. Our constant failure to see poverty and social exclusion as an issue that needs to be central to all our plans, programmes and funding streams, means we are falling behind and the gap between rich and poor in the city is growing ever wider.
Bristol has over many decades secured government funding for regeneration programmes to provide additional support and initiatives in areas of deprivation and poverty, but those areas are still the same decades later, and many of the issues that need addressing are still the same – unemployment, low educational attainment, low skills, fuel poverty, poor housing, lack of facilities.
Just over 15 years ago I was employed to set up and run a project in Hartcliffe, South Bristol. It’s an area that features high on indices of multiple deprivation and which constantly seems to be lagging behind the rest of the city, but it’s equally an area that receives little attention from the policy makers and decision makers. It seems to be both conceptually and geographically on the edge of the city, forgotten and ignored by many, yet expected to be grateful for the small improvements that are made after many years of debate, discussion and planning. But back to the project I was involved with, the Hartcliffe Campus Project, set up through the initiative of a couple staff (Gus and Tania) at Teyfant Primary School who managed to get some business people interested in the area and their vision for what could happen there. It started with a simple idea about making a pond for the children, improving the sports facilities and improving the environment around the primary school, but grew into a vision about lifelong learning and sustainable development. For anyone that knows the area, the site is now the Bridge Learning Campus, bringing together the old primary, secondary and tertiary education establishments that previously inhabited the site in separate buildings and structures, into a more combined and coordinated approach to education in new buildings and structures set within a campus style development.
When I started off in the job there was no organisation, I was the only member of staff, had no office (I used the nurses office when she wasn’t there) and was employed to engage with local people to get some input to a sports lottery bid. I was given the help and support of one of the school admin staff, a local mum, with children at the school, who had lived in Hartcliffe all her life and whose parents had moved there when it was first built. We talked to people, we went to see them where they were getting together anyway, we invited them to meetings, we did projects with the children to get them interested and talking about it to their parents, we worked with youth workers to engage the teenagers, we leafleted and help fun events to get as many people engaged as possible. As a result, things changed pretty quickly, the project became huge, it became about so much more than a sports bid. The vision, creativity and ideas developed slowly, from a low base to one where eventually we tapped into people’s hopes. This phase of the project taught me a huge amount about what poverty does to people across different generations. I learnt about the lack of aspiration, hope and belief that many in that community suffered, because they’d had their hopes dashed just once too often, or because it wasn’t for the likes of them! I also learnt about the absolute determination many of the parents in that community had to make a better life for their children. Many of the local mums were the ones who ran the community groups and projects, who engaged with the regeneration programmes, who gave up their time to make things happen and who firmly believed that change was possible. Without them our project wouldn’t have been the success it was.
One of the most shocking things for me, which I think serves to illustrate how deeply ingrained issues of inequality and poverty are, was the lack hope I saw in so many people, young and old, that we talked to throughout the project. This came to the surface in different ways, some negative and some positive. One example, which almost brought us to tears, was when we asked a class of the primary school children to draw a picture of what they would most like to see change in their area, what they would love to have nearby. We got the expected pictures of cinemas, McDonald’s, new houses, play parks etc. but we also got a picture of some lovely red flowers, with the caption “Carlos would like flowers” a sad indictment of just how dull the local environment was, with lots of green space but no parks/gardens with colour. A limited aspiration perhaps, but also a wonderful example of a childs ability to see what is missing – colour! Another example was the older couple who came along to an event to look at the proposals we had for a Millennium Green, a park and garden area to be situated on Bishport Avenue, close to the Primary School. Their response when we described our plans was entirely defeatist, they’d seen it all before, “what’s the point, they’ll only wreck it anyway”. This was a pretty standard response from many of the adults we spoke to and also some of the younger children, who had seen teenagers destroy anything good in the area. We were advised not to waste our time and money providing a play area, seating and gardens because it wouldn’t last.
The Millennium Green did happen, we secured Millennium Commission funding, built the park and garden, the play equipment and seating area, the flowerbeds and rockery, community orchard, the willow tunnels, amphitheatre, the teenage shelter, wildlife pond and natural play areas. Much of it is still there, and more has been developed since, and in its own way has transformed a little corner of the Hartcliffe Campus site for the whole community to enjoy – you can see the street view here. We soon learnt that when the teenagers set fire to the benches or play equipment, we replaced them; when the locals popped down to the rockery area and helped themselves to the South Cerney stone we had used for the pathways, we replaced it. We also involved them in the next steps, the vision for the rest of the site and what they thought was still missing formed the next stage of the project.
Whilst there were undoubtedly some successes with the project, as with many other projects operating in the area, they could only touch the surface of the real issues of exclusion, inequality of opportunity and poverty of hope. Those things were all too evident throughout the project and still remain even now in Hartcliffe and in many of our communities, for different reasons. Sometimes we just need to stand back and consider how different people experience the same place, the same city. We should ask ourselves “how does someone else perceive my city/town/village?” If they have no spare money, no car, very little spare time because they’re working 2 or more low paid jobs and everyday is a struggle to pay the bills and make ends meet, how does that person see this place? Because I’m sure many would not see the image we portray of our cities, they will see their neighbourhoods devoid of change, with poor environments, lacking in infrastructure and facilitates, poor schools, no jobs and where it seems no one cares because litter, vandalism, crime and dereliction are a part of everyday life. These are the inequalities we need to remember when we talk about how great our city is, when we talk about growth and prosperity and when we enjoy what our city centres have to offer, remember not everyone will see it like that!