REVIEW OF THE YEAR 2015-16
BY MIKE THORNE, CHAIR, 2015-16.
The Bearpit Improvement Group’s vision is to make the urban space known locally as The Bearpit WELCOMING, SAFE, DIVERSE and INCLUSIVE.
Achievements of the past year.
- The management of the Group has been very stable, with no change in the nine-strong Board of Directors during the 2015-16 year. Five new Members were welcomed into the Company, making a total of 35 Members, as at the end of August 2016. Each of the Directors has continued to take responsibility for one of the ‘workstreams’. The Board is ably supported by a new Treasurer, Anita Randen-Green, and a new Secretary, Sue Miller. All the work done by the Board is voluntary, with nobody receiving any remuneration.
- We have continued to enjoy support from Bristol City Council, particularly from Adam Crowther as our principal contact with BCC officers, but also from Kurt James and Mohammed Elsharif. Local Councillor Mark Wright has supported us from the beginning, and in 2015-16 we also had support from Cllr Ani Stafford-Townsend. Since the Council elections in May 2016 the Bearpit is now in the new Central ward of the City, and we have made contact with the two new councillors for that ward, Paul Smith and Kye Dudd.
- Following an increase in anti-social behaviour by some of the regular visitors to the Bearpit, we have received more support from the Police Authority, led locally by Inspector Deborah Yates. A Stakeholders Group was formed in November 2015 to improve liaison between the different agencies with an interest in the Bearpit, chaired by Kurt James from BCC, and comprising representatives of the Police, the Council, the surrounding hotels, the Bristol Drugs Project, St Mungo’s, as well as ourselves (Director Sue Kilroe being the lead contact for community safety issues) and the traders.
- There has been some improvement in our engagement with the community. Led by Directors Kat Hegarty and Alan Morris, and supported by Mohammed Elsharif from BCC, a series of ‘Fun Days’ were held in April 2016 to assess support for a ‘Community Hub’ and a wider range of activities in the Bearpit. The conclusion was little support for a Community Building – the open space was highly valued – but there was support for more activities.
- There has been some improvement in our communications with the community, led by Secretary Sue Miller, with improvements to our website and more regular blogs attempting to better inform our supporters.
- The traders (Director Miriam Delogu at Bearpit Social, Director Tina Hart at Bearfruit, and Robin Halpenny and Simon Green at Bearritos) have continued to consolidate and develop their businesses and as the year ends are bringing forward interesting new proposals for further development. Those permanent traders have supported a Food Market each Wednesday which has brought new customers into the Bearpit.
- There has been a significant improvement in the Greening of the Bearpit, led by Director Sara Venn from Incredible Edible Bristol, helped by a number of volunteers through this past Spring and Summer. New planting, new paths, and in the near future, new seats.
- Two new containers were added to the Bearpit last December, organised by Director Chris Chalkley from PRSC as part of 2015 Bristol Green Capital of Europe initiative. It is intended that one of these will be used for storage for greening and art activities, and the other for performance art. Chris has also led on street art initiatives, especially to Haymarket Walk, and the cube. Plinths for sculpture are being erected at the top of the two flights of steps.
- A skateboarding block has been constructed, organised by Michael Buser.
Opportunities and Challenges for the Next Year and Beyond
- The Board comprises a diverse group of personalities, all of whom have in different ways made significant contributions to the success of our community initiative, but although the conflicts that inevitably arise from that diversity can be a creative force, it can also have a negative effect, and the Board needs careful and dynamic self-management. With at least two Directors standing down at the forthcoming AGM, including me as Chair, there is an opportunity for fresh blood to be now brought into management. The limits of voluntary capacity are a continuing problem for as long as we have no paid staff.
- The Group’s finances are very fragile, with the only regular source of income coming from traders rents and the Wednesday market. The rents charged to the traders are relatively low due to concerns about the sustainability of the businesses, and the funds thereby generated are only just sufficient for the Group’s fixed costs (such as insurance and website fees) and maintenance. We do need to generate more funds in order to provide ‘match funding’ in applications for charitable and public authority grants.
- Links with the City Council and the Police need to be further developed, nurturing the good contacts we have with individual Officers and Councillors. The promise made in 2015 by City officers to develop a new strategy for the Bearpit has not materialised. Both the Council and the Police will be hamstrung by planned cuts in public expenditure, and support from them may consequently be reduced.
- Anti-social behaviour (ASB) in the past year has had an extremely adverse impact on the attractiveness of our environment and the personal safety and business success of our traders, and action must be taken to improve the situation. We were obliged last December to dismantle the Pavilion, designed and erected by an artist at Hand-in-Glove with the best of intentions, but unfortunately it became the focus of ASB. We recognise that many of the instigators of ASB have been using the Bearpit as a base for a number of years, and we do not wish to shift them elsewhere, but somehow we must get them to behave better.
- The Public Toilets are a public health hazard, in terms of their condition, maintenance, and short opening hours. We would like to see great improvements in all these aspects, but BCC funding is likely to be a challenge. As a first step, Director Kat Hegarty is leading on survey work of the toilets, and Director Sue Kilroe has proposed a public health campaign.
- Engagement with and communications with the local community require constant effort. Developing the community activities sought by the public surveyed on our ‘Fun Days’ last April will probably require the employment of a Community Activities Manager that sets another funding challenge, though the interest being shown by potential partner organisations appears to be very promising.
- Further planting is needed to complete Director Sara Venn’s plans, and the green areas will need maintenance, probably by voluntary labour, at least in respect of the shrub planting, though it is hoped that BCC will resume maintenance of the grassed areas.
- Although much of the Street Art that has appeared over the last year has made a significant contribution to the environmental attractiveness of the Bearpit, many of the exhibits have subsequently been marred by substantial tagging, and there are no effective ideas in place to control this anti-social activity.
- Development of play facilities has over the last year been disappointing, though not for want of ideas and effort – an exciting array of possible facilities approved by the Board last December were subsequently rejected by BCC on grounds of safety and maintenance.
- The success of the traders in the Bearpit is of fundamental importance to meeting our objectives, and the Group will need to nurture and support the traders accordingly.
Mike Thorne, Chair, Bearpit Improvement Group, 31st August 2016.