Over the last few years a team from the CCRI has been taking part in a project about the future of cities, researching land use, shortening food chains and nutrient recycling. The focus of this research has been the city of Bristol and the surrounding area.
As we have always made clear in discussions that in Bristol the future of the city is a debate that has been held against a backdrop of contention. In part this is part of the clamorous and confrontational approach of British politics but increasingly my analysis is that it is about the failure of our democratic systems, locally and nationally.
At the moment a group of protestors in Bristol are defending an area of prime agricultural land (the blue finger), a rare and finite resource, by occupying trees and non-violently resisting the development of the land. This is not a simple protest of the people against the oligarchs but against a metrobus system designed to improve the urban transport system, lower green house gas emissions and so combat climate change. It is a conflict between the differing environmental priorities of the city, of competing and conflicting visions of how sustainable cities will be realised.
If you want to see more about the background of this protest I would suggest the local BBC report and a quick look on the internet will give you the views of the opposing sides. What concerns me is that we need urgently to make informed decisions about the future of cities that create, and so command, agreement. When I look at the local government structure of the area it would seem to be designed to thwart such a process. The urban fabric of Bristol is divided between 2 councils – Bristol City and South Gloucestershire, if we look just a little bit wider, as we might for planning food provision for example, then we need to consider North Somerset and Bath and North East Somerset. A little wider still then we need the Counties of Gloucestershire, Wiltshire and Somerset. Across this are laid a raft of economic regeneration bodies in the Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEP) and now a super-city region that includes Cardiff and Newport in Wales, with a national assembly and another range of local authorities to be considered. A tangled web.
Economists use the phrase of ‘transaction costs’ the cost of the friction of trying to get something done and we can think about the same concept in democratic terms. As a citizen trying to be heard, trying to make change, or at least feel that my point of view has been considered then this tangle of decision making bodies is not likely to promote that feeling. Inevitably those organisations or groups with the money, time and expertise to navigate this tangle will have their voices heard. In terms of improving the life of a city this will tend to favour infrastructure projects – big kit, big money, big backers – over those that look to the ‘softer’ answers of community building and behaviour change. At times of course infrastructure is necessary but our decision makers need to be aware of how smaller voices can get lost in the tangle and the frustrations that arise from that.
In some ways protest, putting your body on the line in a sincere non-violent defence of your opinion is one of the highest forms of democratic participation, it is also a sign of failure. As people dangle from trees on the edge of Bristol defending the soil, they are a sign of the failings of our system of local democracy. Not an auspicious start for the European Green Capital of 2015 in the global year of the soil.