People come to Bristol from all over the world for many different reasons. Most reading this paper have come to Bristol in the hope of getting a good education. Some arrive here in the hope of finding a relaxed yet vibrant city in which to raise a family. Others arrive in the hope of starting new lives entirely, escaping from war or oppression elsewhere. There are many more reasons etched into the city’s past: slavery and the collapse of an empire, to name just two.

Bristol today is a product of that past, and a continuous project in attempting to come to terms with it. In 2007 the city marked the bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act with a series of exhibitions, educational projects and community events. And looking to the future, rather than the past, Bristol was last year named a City of Sanctuary: a place proud to offer refuge for those who are no longer safe in their own country.

What we have now is a city that is by many measures an incredibly diverse place to live. Every summer since 1967 has seen tens of thousands of people turn out for St. Paul’s Carnival: a testament to the enduring spirit of the African Caribbean community there. It is also thought that there are now around 110 different languages spoken in the city’s primary schools. This is a city changing at an incredible rate. But the story of diversity in Bristol is not a simple one.

At a conference earlier this month, Annie Hudson, director of Children and Young People’s Services for Bristol, told an audience that ‘we need to be un-defensive about what must be done… The gaps between social groups in this city are unacceptably huge.’

Harris Joshua delivered the findings of a new Institute of Community Cohesion report on the changing nature of Bristol’s communities (in more detail over the page). As well as increases in segregation and cultural isolation in certain areas, he spoke of the difficulties faced by less well-established communities. The Roma population being the newest ethnic group to settle in the city, there was evidence of their marginalization by almost all other communities, leading to some of the worst deprivation in the city. Through an incredibly complex and changing picture of tension, one comment rang clear: that ‘long standing issues of inequalities are still not completely resolved.’

One man intimately involved in the state of equalities in Bristol is Public Health Manager Marvin Rees. He grew up ‘essentially in the poor areas of Lawrence Western and Easton… Kid with brown skin, watching a white mum trying to bring up two brown skinned children… I was very aware of issues of inequality and race, even before I had the language to express it.’

Marvin currently sits on the board of the Bristol Legacy commission, which was set up to find ways to improve the education, health and cultural representation of Bristol’s BME (Black and minority ethnic) communities. His experience as both a resident and a health professional have lead him to some fairly stark conclusions:

‘The way I’ve come to term it is that Bristol is a city fractured by race and class. There are very distinct boundaries. Some people can cross them, but on the whole they characterize life in the city… You scratch the surface and you find it’s quite a divided city, and the ultimate expression of that division is the incredibly wide variety of life expectancies across the city.’

The statistics ring clear on this point: life expectancy for men in the most deprived areas of Bristol is 7 years less than in the least deprived areas. The picture of a superficially cosmopolitan city is also supported by a 2006 Joseph Rowntree Foundation report that found there to be ‘complex networks of settlements based on income or ethnicity that have little to do with each other. Thus there are a series of different Bristols.’

The results of such impermeable social boundaries are a serious matter for concern: ‘We have very low levels of social mobility in the city… as long as this situation remains, that people are born with lower life expectancy, a greater likelihood of going to prison and a lower likelihood of going to a good university, just by virtue of where they are born, the legacy and history of inequality is going to stay with us.’

As far as Marvin is concerned, real change can only come from the top:

‘As a city we need to look at diversifying the leadership. If you just come at it from one culture, or a narrow range, you’re going to come up with the same old solutions to the same old problems that have been with us forever. So it’s for the good of the city to diversify the thinking that’s available to it on how it wants to shape the city, and where it wants to go.’

For the sake of Bristol’s ever changing communities, it seems that bold steps must be taken to avoid the entrenchment of what are already sizeable inequalities.

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