Posts Tagged ‘Bristol’

The Cost of Living

Labour has decided that councillors in Bristol should preserve democracy by ensuring that there is a constructive opposition on the council. The debate about that decision is raging in plenty of other places, I want to think about what constructive opposition might mean. Opposition is easy, highlighting the mayor’s mistakes (which there are bound to be, no-one is perfect), use the council structures to frustrate his plans (very difficult given the power’s of a mayor) and use any opportunity to criticise.

Being constructive is more difficult. But being constructive is what is required and needed by the City. Below are a few ideas but there are bound to be more:

Scrutiny and overview. The scrutiny committees have struggled to find a role. Labour could use them as they were intended to look in detail at key issues, to engage with experts and citizens (these overlap of course – seeks Venn diagram) to develop policies to propose to the Mayor and or develop feasible alternatives to his policies (even he admits he doesn’t have many beyond urban design where his views are pretty sound so there is plenty of scope to influence).

The full council meeting: This meeting is and always has been the worse of the council, its structure, indeed the layout of the room encourages bad behaviour. It is also the place where members of the media and even sometimes the public attend and is thought to typify the way the council works, whereas it is often a twisted parody of what people expect of politicians. Labour needs to avoid falling to the trap of this meeting, using it to showcase policy proposals rather than loutish tribalism.

Mayoral commissions: It seems likely the mayor will establish policy commissions. We should encourage Labour members and supporters with the necessary expertise to play a full role in this, they will be an excellent opportunity to promote progressive policies.

Outside the council Labour should not concentrate on leaflets attacking the Mayor. The – door knocking which is solely about identifying peoples’ traditional support has limited value. The work with the citizens of Bristol needs to be a discussion rather than an opinion poll. The work Marvin Rees started at the beginning of his campaign needs to be continued. Holding meetings open to the general public on issues of importance to seek solutions to the cities problems, having a real debate with local people. These could be in large groups in meeting rooms and halls or among a small group in someone’s living room.

Constructive opposition’s aim is not to disagree and resist but to persuade and influence. It is not about focussing on the here and now but also about preparing for the future.

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Below is the text of a speech I gave on 3rd July to the Association of Town Centre Management. The speech delivered would have varied slightly from this text as I didn’t just stand up and read it, it just provided me with a structure and a crutch.

Town and city centres are the cradle of civilisation. People came together to trade creating markets which in turn developed villages in key locations into towns. The exchange of goods led to the exchange of ideas, to innovation, invention and modern society. The historic role of town centres was not just about trade but also about culture, learning and life itself.


When I set up the Broadmead board in Bristol the threat to our centres was the out of town development, a comparison shopping Mecca with acres of car parking and associated leisure facilities. The battle was to stake out a lively, safe and diverse town centre alternative. I remember the effort we put into making our streets clean as the first step to winning the confidence of retailers and landlords alike. From there came the redevelopments, here in Bristol, Cabot Circus.


Today our town centres face a new threat, not that the out of town centres have gone away. In some ways this threat has been cloaked by the recession.


There is now a new place where people can meet, trade goods and ideas. The internet. The internet is creating communities of interest which don’t need to be co-located. Shopping from your sofa and socialising from the living room. Goods purchased direct from retailers or via Amazon arrive on our doorsteps. We can even sell to each other via EBay turning us all back into traders.



Town centres are no longer required for their historic purpose. Perhaps we should close the conference now. Have I come here like Mark Antony “To bury town centre management, not to praise it”?


I work in the housing sector where housing management has developed into neighbourhood management and is now having to reinvent itself again. I think that our town centres need more than management,

more than a green or black bin with a gold embossed council logo on it and matching lampposts,

more than pictures covering the windows of empty shops.


Our town centres need to find new purpose and new energy. In some ways the Portas review says it all but I have some time to fill so please indulge be a little longer.



My organisation, which started as 1 then 2 then 3 then 6 council housing departments is breaking away from its housing past. When we look at the areas we serve managing the housing is no longer enough as we need to deal with our estates by more than one property at a time. Neighbourhood management also is not enough. While cutting the grass is important, to have sustainable communities we need to do more. We also have to respond to the huge demographic change which is taking place, as our society grows collectively older.


We can’t wait for others to deal with the problems on our estates, the councils are closing services and the charities are falling away as grant income becomes harder to find. We are having to move from management to leadership. Can we create new jobs and new businesses ourselves, with our customers? Can we design our homes to respond to peoples’ needs? Should we be providing new services ourselves, care, health, education, the list is potentially endless.


This is also the challenge facing town centre management.



Now we all know that town centres are constrained by historical layouts, dispersed ownership and archaic planning regulations. Indeed I am trying to open a shop in a town centre in Somerset. The planning hurdles to me doing this are only matched in their complexity by their absurdity. I need a change of use, but to do this I am required to say what I want to do in every square metre of the building, I made the mistake at one point saying that I did not know what I would do with one of the existing backrooms to the shop which now means I need to provide a detailed floor plan specifying all uses. If I was an individual entrepreneur rather than part of a corporate body I would have given up months ago.


We need to be bold with our town centres or watch them collapse into a combination of charity shops, pound shops, coffee shops, the few hardy perennials and a lot of empty unused space. Holding markets alone will not sort this out, sorry Mary. In my experience many shop based retailers hate market stall holders as they envy their freedom from overheads. We are lucky in Bristol with the quality of our market stalls but many town markets are dominated by outdoor versions of pound shops or car boot sales.


We need to find new uses for the spaces which are unlet, not keep holding out for retailers to fill the space. This can’t be achieved by town centre management. To succeed we need to convince councils to have the courage to tear up the rule book and for owners to think again about what uses will work in their properties. Town centre managers need to be able to advocate for a radical overhaul of our high streets. Perhaps we need a form of enterprise zone for centres which not allow a reduction in business rates but also a more flexible planning regime allowing changes of use between retail and other activities.


Let us go back to the local communities and customers and see what they can do. There have been a few examples of empty shops being turned over to new businesses and social enterprises to create new uses and activity. Perhaps some of our shops should be converted into housing or offices or performance spaces or artist studios. Town centres were never just about retail and we need to be far more open to a more diversity. A monoculture based largely around shopping and eating is always much easier to create out of town. The difference about the high street is that it is somewhere and can be far more than a covered retail park.


Town centres need to be where people come together when they want more from a relationship than 140 characters. We still need human contact, we still need to feel things. We can’t do everything through the internet.


This needs leadership not management (well maybe management as well). It needs the authority to change the mindset of planners, owners, licensing. It needs the credibility to involve a wide range of partners and local communities. I think you are exceptionally well placed to do this.


So I say


The Association of Town Centre Management is Dead


Long live


The Association of Town Centre Leadership




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As I await the result of the Labour ballot for elected Mayor, hoping they select a candidate I can support my thoughts turn to the current favourite and what to do with my second vote.

George Ferguson is a colourful character in an arena full of dour people. He oozes enthusiasm and energy. I have known George for over 20 years now and have often found myself on the same side of an argument as him. Recently we have been shoulder to shoulder on the stump arguing both for electoral reform and an elected mayor. We have even danced together at the opening of the Tobacco factory in Raleigh road, where I was then a resident.

So why am I so uneasy about rallying behind the bookies favourite for mayor? He has recently suggested that it is all about party politics. George has only resigned his membership of the Liberal Democrats after the referendum result was in. However it isn’t that, this is a job which is bigger than parties and as failed candidates for Bristol West we should probably set up a society.

My concern is that George seems to have a blind spot. Hopefully one he can address before we go to the polls. In some ways this blog is a plea for him to address this issue before votes have to be cast in November. George is a great enthusiast for Bristol, he is often right about issues on design and planning, but he doesn’t seem to be able to separate this from an enthusiasm for himself.

In the late 1990s one of the biggest issues in Bristol was the development of Canon’s Marsh, now Harbourside. George was part of one of the losing teams in a bid to develop the site, I seem to remember it was called something like little Venice because it including an extra dock for a ship near Lloyds arena. Once the winning bid was announced George joined the campaign to defeat it. He was successful and then became part of the team for the subsequent scheme which got planning permission.

George is a strong advocate, quite rightly, for mixed use developments, dare I use the phrase – ‘with active ground floor uses’.  When a terrible, sub urban housing development was proposed for the inner city Elizabeth Shaw chocolate factory in Greenbank was proposed George was soon advising and supporting the campaign against it. Planning permission was refused and then lo and behold George was the architect for the developer of a new scheme. Although the scheme has been criticised by some I thought it was an attractive mixed use which would be a real boost to the area (although I was concerned by the lack of affordable housing). George has said on twitter that he was not going to benefit financially from the scheme but then did not answer any questions about whether his architectural service was free or fee. He has also branded questions relating to his interests as ‘gutter politics’ rather than addressing them.

We can see George also at the forefront of opposing the redevelopment of Ashton Gate, suggesting a mixed use scheme instead (with his firm as the architects?) and a similar position relating to the plans to redevelop the old South Bristol College site.

My concern is that George is unable to separate his passion for Bristol from his commercial interests. He has said publicly that he will resign his membership from the Society of Merchant Venturers and other memberships which might create a suggestion of a conflict of interest. For me it’s not what he is a member of but his apparent inability to see that he business model (as the Clash would say “Turning rebellion into money”) suggests that he has a blind spot in terms of such conflicts. He has so far made no clear statements (which I have seen) in relation to his business interests in the City. The potential power of the Mayor makes this a critical issue and one which I hope and I’m sure George can clear up before the vote.

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Yeah Yeah Yeah

I’m voting for an elected Mayor for Bristol because
1) We need someone with the democratic legitimacy to speak for the whole city not just one political party
2) We should have someone who can be selected by the whole city not just a few councillors acting in secret with vested interests in the result
3) We should have a system where the most talented people in the City can seek to be the leader of the city not just drawn from people who can afford to be councillors
4) The mayoral system is already seeing powers moving from national to local government, the more city mayors we have the stronger voice there is for this
5) We need someone who draws votes from all of the city and doesn’t ignore areas where their party can’t win wards
6) Bristol council is in a rut it needs shaking up

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So Lonely

I have a sad tale to tell. One of a lonely man walking the streets of Bristol in search of love. He has posted details of his sad tale through many letterboxes on his Focus newsletter. To protect his identity as we retell his story on the world wide web we will call him Steve. If you know anyone who can help him his address is at the end of this post.

Steve first read about love in his local     library. It seemed so wonderful and so easy

He then tried the internet as he had heard that it was a great way to find people.

He sent out his message and waited outside.

But no-one came so he ran out into the street to seek his love.

But all he could find was a lamppost.  They spoke for sometime but Steve realised that the relationship had no future. So he rushed into the next street.

Unfortunately once again the street had been abandoned. Now somewhat disheartened he made his way to the local park.

Although the sign welcomed him, people, and even ducks were nowhere to be seen.

At last he settled upon a solution.

Steve decided to join a local fitness club to increase his pulling power.

Can you help Steve? Then write to Steve, Man in a jacket, Freepost RSKZ-STLK-BUYA, Bristol BS7 8ND

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Back Home

A visit to Manchester has helped me to crystallise why I feel so dissatisfied by the new museum at M Shed.

For those of you who don’t know the history.  George Micklewright who has leader of the council around the turn of the millennium had long had a desire to have a museum in the city which told the story of its people. I think this was inspired, at least in part, by the peoples museum in Glasgow. I remember discussing it when I was Chair of Leisure in 1988/89 when trying to develop a long term home for the slavery exhibition.

MShed was the long awaited realisation of this vision. But it isn’t. On the ground floor it includes some sadly glib and almost mythological descriptions of some of Bristol’s communities and on the upper floor an almost random selection of items, some interesting some just appearing to fill a space – giving the impression of an old style junk shop.

Last Saturday I visited the People’s history museum in Manchester (when I went to the one in Glasgow it was closed). Now I know that this museum has an agenda to tell a story of the struggle for freedom and equality of working people. We don’t want a replica of this in Bristol. However what it does do is tell a range of those stories through the centuries as a chronological narrative. For me history is not about a few interesting snippets but it is about how changes and developments build upon eachother over time, recreating a journey which provides a rationale for why we are where we are now. (I have a similar concern about history in primary schools which seems to be about randomly selected periods in history rather than a flow).

I found MShed deeply disappointing and I know that I am not alone

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Following huge demand – well one request – above is my speech to the Bristol Labour Party on the case for an elected mayor for the city.

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White Riot

Gatehouse Centre, what Hartcliffe got for rioting

The blogging around the disturbance in Stokes Croft and inspired me to put some words down about the 1992 Hartcliffe Riot.  Not a full account and history, but just what I heard saw and can remember all this time later.

In July 1992 Hartcliffe heard that  it had  failed in obtaining a large Government grant. Michael Portillo had come to the estate as part of the assessment and thought the area, framed by Dundry Hill seemed very nice. The sunny weather that day had lost the area funding.  However we did not realise that something far more significant was unfolding.

A local man had stolen a motorbike. Not very interesting you might think but it was not any old bike but a high performance vehicle used by the serious crime squad – a regional not local police force. To lose a motorbike in such circumstances was a huge embarrassment. Far too embarrassing to report to the local police, imagine the ridicule. So the serious crime police decided to launch their own operation to recover the vehicle. Not trained in pursuit it all went horribly wrong and two locals, one a youngster riding on the back of the bike were dead in Hartcliffe (rumour was that the rider was decapitated in the accident but I am not sure if that’s true).

That night after the pub closed a large group of locals went down to Symes Ave the local shopping area. At the head of the street was the library, one room of which was used as a ‘Cop Shop’ a drop in office for the local police. A combination of anger and beer meant that this room was soon smashed in and on fire.  The momentum of the crowd lead to some of the shops been attacked and burned out. The police arrived and a clash ensued. This ended after an hour or so when it started raining and the crowd dispersed.

The next day the Hartcliffe riot was reported on the national media, with useful graphic maps showing exactly where Hartcliffe was.  This meant anyone who fancied a fight with the police from as far as Birmingham and Reading descended upon the estate.

That evening the atmosphere was electric, during the day school children had further vandalised some of the shops after the schools closed (I think it might have been the last day of term).  The pubs filled up rapidly and the riot vans drove in. Before closing time the riot erupted again.  The police had hopelessly under estimated the size of the crowds (anyone reading any riot accounts would be aware that about 90% of the people there are onlookers – some shouting encouragement but having the effect of swelling the numbers and making the rioters seem far greater in number).

The Police decided to form a ring around the shopping area (one front line was outside my house which was near the shops). Kettling wouldn’t work in Hartcliffe as most streets were rows of semi detached housing and people ran through the gardens to escape attempts at arrest.  The riot that night went on until at least 3am and cars were overturned and set on fire as far away as two miles from the shopping area.

The third night the Police numbers were massively swelled by outside forces and the riot fizzled out.

Some people blamed the decline of the shopping area on the riot but the truth was that it was already closing down following the exit of the local bank and the opening of superstores in Whitchurch and Bedminster (with free buses).  The riot focussed attention on the area and led to new money being found to fund the Gatehouse Centre on the Hartcliffe/Withywood border.

Several rioters were convicted, from memory the Police team which killed two locals had their wrists slapped but got off without serious action. As with Stokes Croft this riot would not have happened if it had not been for the action of the Police.



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This was one of the Lib Dems election pitch six to fix.

However they are now is disarray as local people campaign to save green spaces from housing development.  While the cabinet try to pretend that they are protecting green space by building housing on it they are really trying to deliver their own housing targets without affecting the greenbelt which they seem to love.

Greenbelt were established, not to protect high quality open space (although the greenbelt does include some important public spaces and quality habitats) but to stop cities spreading and merging with surrounding towns and villages.  While there is a strong case for protecting most of it, there are some instances when greenbelt land would be a reasonable place to build much needed housing.

The lib dems are so keen on politics by slogan that they are proposing to build on urban open spaces and parks (although not in their (once) core areas such as Clifton or St Andrews). The bulldozing of Inns Court is also driven by the same housing targets.

Naturally before looking at any green land Bristol should be turning its sites to existing abandoned sites. The most famous is probably Westmoreland House in Stokes Croft. This has remained in a state of decay for two decades (longer?) including under Labour administrations. I remember being lobbied about Stokes Croft when I was dealing with Broadmead in the 1990s. WE thought, wrongly, that if we could sort out Broadmead that improvements would cascade into Old Market and Stokes Croft.  They didn’t.

The Lib Dems scheme for the Bristol North Baths area is another disaster.  Accepting the highest bidder with the cheapest scheme and slowly negotiate away all of the benefits which were expected to be funded by the developer.

Inns Court will not be regenerated by knocking it down and rebuilding at a higher density.  When families look at where they will buy homes, if they can get a mortgage these days, they look at school performance. Those in work will want a cheap and easy route to jobs. To regenerate Knowle West the two most effective changes would be to drive up school results and improve public transport into the centre of Bristol (where most people in South Bristol work.

These proposals are not about improving parks or regenerating communities but about protecting sites from development, most of which are in South Gloucestershire and North Somerset.

Quotes from Council Documents

Housing Strategy Actions:

Working to identify sites, particularly those ownedby major institutions including the city council,suitable for mixed tenure housing development

Bristol Core Strategy:

Some areas of open land will bebrought forward for essential development, with local communities involved i nmaking the choices.

and most telling of all

A flexible and responsive supply of deliverable and developable land will be identified to secure the delivery of  a minimum of 30,000 new homes between 2006 and 2026. Provision will be in accordance with the spatial strategy for Bristol set out in this Core Strategy.Development of new homes will primarily be on previously developed sites across the city. Some new homes will be developed on open space which does not need to be retained as part of the city’s green infrastructure provision.

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Bristol is a tribal city divided and lacking direction. Maybe it has been so for decades, maybe it is true of other cities too, I know none as well as my own. London is described as a collection of villages, Bristol sometimes behaves like a collection of inward looking hamlets. Politics here has become poisoned and the blame culture is rife.

For the last 15 years or so this not necessarily been a huge problem. There has been plenty of money in private, public and voluntary sectors sloshing around, allowing organisations to stumble on without too much difficulty.

Now things are different. The coalition’s cuts and plans to destroy the public sector are real and immediate.  It is not only the City Council but a wide range of organisations which are not filling posts and commencing procedures to make people redundant.  While protest is important, indeed essential, it is not likely to have any immediate impact on a Government set strongly on its course.

We need a radical rethink of the way services are organised and delivered if we are to protect them. The salami slicing of services across a wide range of organisations is not the solution.

Now is the time for Bristol to come together. We need to combine as many of the public sector organisations as possible in a collective reorganising of services sharing management, back office services and looking for joint delivery wherever possible.  Some councils have looked at sharing Chief Executives. In my opinion Bristol should not look to further weaken its already parlous Governance. Far better to have joint Chief Executives with organisations based within the City, say the local hospital trust UBHT.  Lets share senior managers and their costs across Bristol organisations.

We can look at shared IT, personnel, facilities management, accountancy, legal support and estate management.  Jointly using buildings to reduce premises costs.  Also look at whether services can be integrated.  The City Council runs libraries (currently at the forefront of deskilling services) but so does the university and the City of Bristol college maybe these can be jointly managed.  I am sure there are many other examples too.  The voluntary sector should also be invited to participate in this knitting together of a unified public service sector.

Services delivered at the local level should be built around the needs of local people in consultation with them. We need to find more imaginative ways of doing this than the current model of neighbourhood committees which cover too large an area, are too bureaucratic and have little real power.

The opportunity for a greater Bristol built on partnership and joint working is possible and offers part of the alternative to watching our services decay and collapse.

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