Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Diversity and dynamism

Great column here by Peter Madden, Chief Executive of Forum for the Future, the sustainable development charity:

I WAS speaking at a conference in the Watershed recently, about whether Bristol should have an elected mayor. One of the delegates stuck up his hand and asked why there were so few Bristol-born people there?

He argued that there is a serious division in the city, with so-called 'incomers' pushing themselves forward to run things, ignoring what 'genuine locals' want.

Now, as an 'incomer' myself, I responded by saying that Bristol is – and always has been – an inclusive city. In fact, it has been from medieval times, when it saw the arrival of Welsh, Irish, Cornish and Jews, to recent decades, when it welcomed Afro-Caribbeans, Polish, South Asians and Somalis. Indeed, I subsequently discovered that Bristol has had ethnic minority citizens for centuries, with a person of African heritage recorded as living in Bristol as early as 1641.

Given this long history of people coming into the city, I said there shouldn't be some kind of 'birth-test' whereby only people who were born here get to have a stake in the city. Go back far enough and surely everyone was an outsider once?

OK, perhaps I am touchy on this because I'm originally a Londoner. But I have chosen to live here. My kids were born here and I'm bringing them up here.

I've committed to Bristol, and I do contribute as much as I can to making Bristol a better place.
Certainly, lots of other people who have chosen to live here – rather than being born here – feel the same passion and pride about the place.


And I do think that incomers bring lots of dynamism – not just to Bristol, but to cities in general. Cities are places people move to in order to improve their lot. If incomers weren't allowed to do anything leading in this city, what would the alternative be? Should we all just to sit back and let things float along? Is that really going to give us a dynamic 21st-century Bristol?

You wouldn't expect to hear people in London say: "Why aren't the Cockneys running everything?" A world class city is open and inclusive.

However, where I think the questioner did have a point – and it was one reinforced by the Dean of the Cathedral – was in his view that we live in a very divided city. Outside London, Bristol is the most unequal city in the UK and there are certainly big chunks of the population who feel that their needs and priorities aren't being properly met.

The challenge, then, is not so much about Bristol-born versus outsiders, but whether we live in a genuinely inclusive city, where discussions about the big priorities include – and respond to – all the people who live here.

So, maybe the next time there is a big debate on how to run Bristol in the future, it should happen in Southmead, Easton or Hartcliffe, rather than on the Harbourside?

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