Neighbourhood responses to Brexit challenges

Barton Hill, Bristol. Synwell/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by-nc-nd)

Ed Palairet has been a resident of Knowle West since 2009, where he raises his young family, leads a Christian community, chairs the Churches Together group and is a trustee of a local charity. Follow him on twitter @EdwardPalairet.

“Taking back control”, they said. If that means being active citizens and active listeners, there may be hope.

Brexit has presented us with a series of new challenges and revived some old ones. While these are of continental magnitude, very practical ways forward at the very local level (that people can engage with organically) can be more effective than grand solutions that too often seem ‘out of touch’.

Neighbourhoods are not the only unit of political organisation, interest or identity. Indeed, some people simply use their address to sleep and receive bills, while others use their address as a base around which to have meaningful social interactions, create community and become active in their neighbourhood. This means that not everyone will engage with the concept of ‘neighbourhood’, but here are a few good reasons from the #BristolBrexit discussions to start doing so.

In the last decade, our neighbourhoods have been affected by the financial crisis (e.g. planned buildings haven’t been built), by our politicians and media blaming our society’s most vulnerable people, by the effects of national cuts, and now we brace ourselves for the local (Bristol City Council) cuts and the unknowns of Brexit.

Understandably, many residents do feel like helpless victims. So it was good to have, among others, the two wards least “satisfied with their neighbourhood” (in the 2015 Bristol quality of life survey) represented at the workshop. We heard residents of Barton Hill, Filwood and Hartcliffe share their experiences. The UK 2011 census describes the demographics of Filwood and Hartcliffe as ‘blue collar communities’ (white working class). In contrast, Barton Hill is a residential area that includes retail and industrial premises and boasts 77 nationalities.

Will the communities that currently feel ‘left behind’ by Westminster-plus-Brussels also be left behind by Westminster-minus-Brussels?

The day after the referendum there was much derision towards areas of the country currently receiving vast sums of money from the European Union that, having voted for Brexit, started panicking and wanting assurances that this money would continue to be received … from somewhere! Everyone receiving funding – whether from local or central government, corporate giving or even private philanthropy – is at risk of losing that income stream if the money isn’t available post-Brexit, irrespective of how well the need is documented and presented.

What about those who were already ‘left behind’ before the referendum?

But what about those who were already ‘left behind’ before the referendum? We heard about Hartcliffe, a housing estate of 11,000 people with no bank or launderette, and with a number of social issues. And Barton Hill’s seemingly fragmented communities that, we were told, cohabitate ‘well’ by tending to remain in safe groups and not interacting with each other. Tensions rise when fighting over limited resources (e.g. fighting in the launderette) as seemingly harmonious living is made worse when focusing on what people don’t have.

In Brexit Britain, there is a very real risk of Westminster being much less immune to lobbying by corporate interests than Brussels is. This is both positive and negative: positive change might be easier to implement, but so too will negative change. Depending on the specific details of the negotiations, Brexit has the power to change everything we thought we knew. But how confident are we that the needs of the communities that were already not thriving are being represented during these negotiations?

Interim solution: There needs to be active listening from decision makers at a local level

Actively including people living in neighbourhoods where the English language, literacy, and/or access to the internet are not guaranteed can be achieved. For example, the ‘Up Your Street’ initiative has helped people to have their say by asking people questions on their doorstep in a language they understand. Also, community organisations have held the Bristol strategy consultation as face-to-face discussions in their community spaces and then filled in the online form, so that the city council could receive feedback from residents who hadn’t responded using the more traditional lines of communication.

Interim solution: Local solutions for local problems, or empowerment rather than dependence

As Bristol fades out its neighbourhood partnerships at the same time as we transition out of the EU, we need to be skilling people up: equipping them to face the uncertainties of the future. In order for people to step up, a new depth of understanding is needed (e.g. about governance, about how funding works, or even how to interact in meetings) to be able to influence decisions, to be effective active citizens and to pioneer the local solutions we need.

How can communities who suffered from the post-referendum race-hate crimes respond?

Media coverage and the tone the debate was allowed to take – which previously would have been deemed not ‘politically correct’ – is an inescapable theme when discussing Brexit. This has created an atmosphere where open racism is no longer culturally taboo, and people wanting to believe that the referendum result means more than half the voters are racist feel justified in using abusive behaviour towards people who don’t look or sound like them.

In Filwood, there are few interactions on the Broadway and social spaces are closing down one by one.

We need more facts and information and fewer opinion pieces that disseminate prejudices – even those we want to believe – since these lead to distrust, segregation, hatred and ultimately, victims. The themes of the media and racism were well covered in the workshop, but sadly I need to mention them here as my neighbourhood was not free of post-referendum race-hate crime. My neighbourhood wasn’t the only one, as the stats from Bristol have shown a surge in this type of reported crime since the referendum. In a show of solidarity for the victims, a Peace Picnic was organised in Filwood Broadway on 31 July 2016.

While reconciliation and education are needed as remedies, one simple solution was discussed at length from the ‘neighbourhoods’ perspective:

Interim solution: inclusive shared spaces: ‘us’ and ‘the other’ interacting in neighbourhoods

The importance of shared spaces is that they allow us to fact-check some of the disinformation by putting us in contact with the people that the tabloids vilify. But with fewer and fewer shared social spaces to interact in, where are people going to meet people that are different from themselves, to learn from them?

We heard that in Barton Hill, a high rise residential area, streets are not social spaces, and community spaces are not actually shared: people seem to take turns to use the space rather than co-occupy the park or the launderette. In Filwood, there are few interactions on the Broadway and social spaces are closing down one by one. First one pub became a block of flats, then another pub became a Tesco; now 100+ houses are being built on the Filwood Park green space.

In a time when people are either behind their mobile phone or behind closed doors, and when Bristol’s housing market is reinforcing social segregation whether it is by class, generation or ethnic groups, shared spaces can still be created. For example, initiatives that engage families can also benefit the elderly.

Facing the future, together

The Brexit debate has brought out a lot of ugly things into the open that have changed the feel of our communities. Now that they are visible, it is time to engage our city as it really is: the examples above are from Bristol. While we could hope that a few individual residents might take on the challenge of actively making non-Bristolians (including non UK nationals) feel welcome in Bristol, such as by learning Polish, in terms of scalable action it would already be a challenge to get neighbours to interact more to generate community cohesion. Interaction is a risk many people avoid, it is often perceived as safer to keep oneself to oneself. The top ten interim solutions the ‘neighbourhoods’ discussion table would like to see us now prepare are:

That individuals:

• use or create shared spaces to facilitate encounters with others and learn from them, e.g. local initiatives such as Bristol Noise family fun days, cross-community story-telling, 91 Ways pop-up cafés and Playing Out (closing the street to cars to allow residents to use the space);

• be active citizens

• consider connecting with their local Bristol City Council community development officer who knows about asset based community development (ABCD)

That the city of Bristol:

• actively listens, discerning solutions with residents not for them (success stories above);

• invests now to equip people with new skills to be part of the solution;

• gets communities mobilised with the help of Citizens UK;

• develops a co-produced Bristol Integration Strategy that addresses the issues we face.

That researchers:

• deepen our collective understanding of what people consider community spaces to be, what spaces successfully bring people together, what spaces create a sense of ownership;

• explore how best to encourage shared use of community hubs;

• develop a joined-up understanding of where assets are located (Bristol City Council’s map of community assets) and how people perceive and use them or not (including the use of existing GIS data to understand how people use or navigate spaces in the city: how, when, with whom, how safe or dangerous, accessible or inaccessible they are perceived to be).

At the individual, community or organisational level, there are steps that can be taken to respond proactively to the new (or newly visible) challenges we face. ‘Taking back control’ means taking responsibility for modelling the society we want.

#BristolBrexit – A City Responds to Brexit
#BristolBrexit – A City Responds to Brexit is a free public event at @Bristol on the 23rd of May from 10.00-13.00. The event, organised by the University of Bristol in collaboration with the University of the West of England and the University of Bath brings together stakeholders, practitioners, activists, educators, business people, city officials, religious leaders, and charity representatives to collectively and collaboratively address the challenges of uncertainty brought about by Bristol. The event will feature a series of interactive formats to bring representatives from across the city together to develop new and innovative strategies for taking Bristol into the future.
All are invited: register here.

This article has been written by a participant in the #BristolBrexit – a city responds to Brexit initiative. The views expressed here are personal views and do not reflect the views of the University of Bristol or the funders of the organisers’ research.

This article was first published by openDemocracy under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence.