Reconnecting Bristol

“I’m enjoying the raw nature of the work; there is no hiding given we are the front door for many people.” Tess, the ex Cardiff University Law Student tells me. “The learning curb has been quick, and until I got involved, I did not fully appreciate the patience and time it takes to help somebody to turn their life around.” Tess supports the Independent Futures (IF) Group, which acts as a bridge between those with lived experience or find themselves enduring homelessness, substance misuse, at risk of reoffending, or mental health concerns with those agencies funded to guide them out of the world they inhabit.

“I’ve just started to volunteer here. I want to make friends, build up my confidence and find work. I’m starting to make good progress now”  Ed tells me who moved to Bristol 3 years ago from the neighbouring city of Bath. “We need more places where people are not being pigeonholed, labelled or marshalled towards somebody else’s answer.” 

Control and power and who holds them seem to be a central value running through Bristol Reconnect. These are the types of concepts that are difficult to measure, and ones that often get left behind when charities and voluntary sector groups are forced to sniff out funding from an ever decreasing pool of tightly defined contracts.

On the ground floor cafe, a volunteer is cleaning and testing the coffee machine while another is tucked away in a corner focused on the task of assembling a donated storage box. Opening times at the cafe fluctuate given the reliance upon volunteers. On the 1st floor is a community room, which is available for hire. Located at the rear of the building is a pleasant garden space, recently upgraded as part of a TV challenge programme. In an ideal world, these assets would be contributing income towards the group’s upkeep, but like most small community groups seeking to survive beyond the realm of grants it will take time, but time is not a luxury for group’s like Bristol Reconnect.  I ask about resources and funding, but it’s met with a deep sigh and redundant shrug of the shoulders. There is, of course, a new settlement urgently needed in this country about the style, nature, and provision of welfare that we are prepared to pay for given the inherent failures of the current system.  But whatever the cause or the potential solutions this is where we find ourselves today, and some people can’t wait, “We either do something, or we do nothing, and doing nothing is unacceptable” Jonathan, the Chief Executive, cook, cleaner, dishwasher, counsellor and crisis manager at Bristol Reconnect tells me.

Bristol like most urban cities in the UK is coming to terms with the impact of austerity. The lag between central government budget announcements, policy delays and the impact on the ground regarding frontline services is catching up for many in the city. The mythology of so-called efficiency savings and other magical accountancy terms have not shielded services against the depth of cuts needed to balance the books. As local campaigns gather pace against the loss of frontline services like libraries those most vulnerable are more unlikely to able to raise their voices. The homeless, vulnerable adults and children with complex care needs and the elderly. This role often falls to groups like Bristol Reconnect, who are increasingly becoming stretched to the point of breaking. The question increasingly being posed is, “what type of local council do we require in Bristol beyond austerity?”

There is a sense of unity with those facing the loss of their jobs in local government and that central government funding cuts are spitefully engineered to punish, strip away dignity and they are ideologically driven to erode further welfare funded by general taxation.

“The way housing is provided makes it difficult for families to live together in neighbourhoods now. The support you would normally get from your grandad, uncle or another member of the family is no longer there, so people look towards institutions like the council. Even before the cuts my experience was mixed and even accessing the service was difficult.” I was told by one person who wanted to remain anonymous.

Local council’s, like Bristol City Council, have traditionally been the significant investor in local charity and community sector groups. “There is little you can often do to change how a large organisation works, so small self-help groups become increasingly important, which poses the question if the likes of the council are struggling to do things with their diminished resources how can we be expected do more without resources? It’s a very dangerous situation we are now entering. It needs a shift in mindset from everybody” say’s Aaron who along with Jonathan is one of the original instigators behind Bristol Reconnect. “We need to rebuild around communities rather than institutions. We will continue to try and explain this to larger organisations who have the clout to make a difference. We try to help them listen, but my experience is things don’t change because of the corporate-ness. It’s dehumanising as if we have adopted something out of the animal kingdom where the fittest survive and the reward is a contract to work with the most marginalised and vulnerable people in our community. The whole ethos is sick. The focus needs to be on reconnecting people.”

What I think Arron is getting at here is not necessarily what institutions seek to do, which is often laudable, but how they go about doing it. It seems to boil down to behaviours and recognising that working within a statutory institution will inevitably develop a specific set of behaviours, as working in the charity and community sector will naturally do. Any rejection of the Government’s policy of austerity cannot simply be about restoring what has gone before. The focus of rebuilding, if or when it comes, must increasingly be about the outcome, behaviours, connection, empathy, equity, etc. rather than simply rebuilding a specific institution. “Simply focussing on relations from a monetary perspective takes things away. Head and heart, depending which one you want to put first. I appreciate people need to get paid, but it’s about having the mindset alongside your responsibility. If you are obtaining a salary, then it provides you with the opportunity to think about others. Voluntary sector groups especially can get destroyed by chasing funding, which ends up determining what they do. There is a balance.” Aaron adds.

So, if there is an acceptance that core funding is difficult to access at the moment.  What type of support do groups like Bristol Reconnect need to survive? After a thoughtful pause from those present the following ideas emerge:

  • Help with redesigning the space we use to make it more efficient.
  • Access to a small budget to help with the start-up phase.
  • Business development throughout the initial shaky period.
  • Volunteers willing to serve from trustee through to service delivery.

None of these issues, of course, are exclusive to Bristol City Council to help resolve, but “How about your local Council?” I ask. “Brokerage” comes the answer.“What do you mean by brokage? I ask. “Somebody who can navigate from within the council who understands how the public, private and charitable sectors work. They are able to facilitate exchanges, obtain and share things. For example, we needed some gear for the kitchen recently. We could spend time fundraising and then purchase stuff, but in a city like Bristol these things will be sitting idle in a charity, business or council storeroom somewhere.”

In times of strife and challenge, when strategy development becomes a comfortable blanket to hide under, it’s often the simple things that can sometimes become the most difficult to resolve. Why? If you want to find out more about Bristol Reconnect, or you may have something to offer? You can take the first step by clicking here: Stand Up and Be Counted.

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Space the final frontier

Taken for granted until they are placed under threat open spaces near our urban centres not only increase our quality of life, but they are essential for leisure activities. The mental and physical health benefits they provide have been demonstrated, along with the proof that they actually prevent and slow down access to expensive health care costs. They are also the lungs of our community offsetting the effects of air pollution while providing a habitat for wildlife to survive. Exploring our open spaces not only improves our feeling of well-being but creates a sense of connection with our broader community. Our local councils, who act as the custodians of our open spaces, are now facing the consequences of a two-pronged assault by the government through their policies of austerity and Growth and Infrastructure. Given this hostile environment, it has become increasingly important that our local council’s do the right thing.

Growth and Infrastructure Act

The Open Spaces Society, have set out the legal risk to public open spaces by the Growth and
Infrastructure Act, “In the past, communities could register their local open space as a town or village green, securing their rights to enjoy it and protecting it from being built on. Now the Growth and Infrastructure Act decrees that, throughout England, landowners can challenge your use of the green for informal recreation and you then have only one year in which to register it. The danger is that the land could be developed before you even know it’s at risk.” 

Austerity 

The Local Government Association report Under Pressure, states, “Councils are currently halfway through a scheduled 40% cut in funding from central government. Having delivered £10 billion of savings in the three years from 2011/12, local authorities have to deliver the same savings again in the next two years. As a result of these cuts councils in many areas will not have enough money to meet all their statutory responsibilities.”

The term “statutory” refers to those services, which the council has to provide by law, the biggest areas of statutory expenditure for your council are social care for the elderly, those with complex needs and children at risk. The level, depth and speed of financial cuts demanded by the central government is unprecedented and will have consequences for generations to come. As your council struggles to tackle the growing demands of social care the stark choice is one of providing essential care to the most vulnerable in our community or reducing services, which are not generally considered “statutory” like public open spaces for example.

The crisis has brought about a natural reaction. Legitimate protests have/are taking place, but they have failed to ignite the mass movement required to force a change in policy and as a consequence had little impact on the policy of austerity. Calls for councils to use their “budget reserves” to plug the hole provides a good soundbite, but will not provide a sustainable answer and those calling for this approach know this full well given it will only delay the problem and ultimately hit services supporting the elderly and vulnerable much harder. The idea that any council will set an illegal budget is just daft. The debate is not one of just reductions, but some services may ultimately stop.

Doing the right thing

Here in Bristol, the funding cuts are valued at £92m during the next five years. The idea that efficiencies, wasteful expenditure on pet projects, gold plated pensions, and cutting jobs will magically fill the budget hole is utterly discourteous to anybody’s intelligence. As reported in the Bristol Post the financial strategy for the council includes a definite saving of £1.2m by 2019/20, which is predicated on a change in how parks and open spaces are managed and maintained with the council looking at alternative ways to run them such as setting up trusts or mutual societies

Northern Slopes

The Northern Slopes constitute three open green spaces between the Knowle West and Bedminster areas of Bristol, which had remained relatively undisturbed since the Second World War when they were utilised for allotments. Thursday evening, 16th March, I had the honour of spending the evening in the company of the volunteers who are the driving force behind the Northern Slopes Initiative (NSI). Like similar volunteer groups, up and down the country the volunteers of the NSI find themselves at the coal face of convincing their local community of the importance of the slopes, protecting and enhancing them while gently elbowing the council to maintain these critical facilities. It is a thankless role, which generates no financial reward, but these volunteers are increasingly becoming the backbone of our communities as the council is forced to retreat. Relatively small in number but dedicated they are prepared to sacrifice their evenings and weekends to improve conditions for their fellow residents. They may also be holding down a job or retired, but their sense of duty is second to known. It will be these very same volunteers who will be called upon to “step up” as part of the response to the financial crisis the council finds itself in.

It ain’t what you do, but the why that you do it – that’s what gets results

Bristol Council’s willingness to look at alternatives, while fraught with difficulties is to be welcomed, but it will not be what the council is seeking to do that will determine its success, far from it, it will be how the council goes about doing it. Until the how is declared the willingness of the council to explore alternative approaches will remain aspirational just like those many well-meaning strategies, which litter the history of local government in the UK.

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