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Changing Bristol and Celebrating Homes for Heroes: 30 Years with Bristol Ideas Paul Smith

Written by Paul Smith

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Mary Milton (local project leader) and Paul Smith in Sea Mills at the launch event for Homes for Heroes 100 with a special cake made for the occasion. (Evan Dawson)

As a councillor and cabinet member (1988-1999 and 2016-2020), Paul Smith played a central role in many projects led by Bristol Ideas. He was the inspiration for 2019’s Homes for Heroes 100 project but contributed much more with ideas, writing and fundraising. His involvement with Bristol Ideas goes back to the early days of The Harbourside Centre project and what is now We The Curious.

My first direct involvement with Bristol Ideas was in connection with a project which would change the city fundamentally. Until this point – adorning many postcards, pictures and promotional materials, as well as appearing whenever a film is made about the city – the classic image of Bristol had always been Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge, opened in 1864. I felt that it was time for a new structure in the centre of city, one which would herald a new millennium and act as a new culture hub for the city.

Vanessa Kisuule reads her poem for Homes for Heroes 100 in Sea Mills. (Evan Dawson)

As the chair of the council’s land and property committee at the time, I was working with the Bristol Ideas Bristol 2000 project to secure the sites for two potential venues: the relocation of the exploratory hands-on science centre and a centre for performing arts (not to mention a new underground car park which would partly fund the two new destinations). I was excited by the new science centre especially as I was a lapsed physicist. In my land role, and later as the chair of the leisure services committee, which included the cultural brief, I found myself as vice chair of the Centre for the Performing Arts, shortened to the CPA and also called The Harbourside Centre.

The partnership seeking to develop this project was driven by Andrew Kelly, newly appointed to head up the Bristol Cultural Development Partnership. He was hidden away in a rather grotty office, Colston House, alongside the old Colston Hall, long since demolished. Andrew brought huge energy to creating a broad-based partnership. The organisation later had its own employed director, but it was Andrew who held the early partnership and the vision together, sometimes having to deal with the fractious relationships between some of those involved. Soon a cheque from Arts Council England for £4.3m (famously delivered by helicopter) arrived and the resources were there to develop the centre and a programme of events across the city. It was clear to me that it was Andrew who ensured the project from the start was focussed not just on the building but also on outreach and bringing the concept to communities, including mine in Hartcliffe, across the city.

The building itself was a stunner, designed by the German architects Behnisch & Behnisch. It was quickly described as ‘the exploding greenhouse’ and considered to be Bristol’s equivalent of the Sydney Opera House. Unfortunately, parochial voices in Bristol’s architecture community sought to undermine a building which wasn’t commissioned from one of their number.

More devastating was the decision by Arts Council England in June 1998 to ditch the project. Its budget was cut by the new Labour government and an early version of levelling up saw the money left granted to the Baltic Mill Gallery in Gateshead instead of Bristol. This was a huge setback for Bristol, a massive opportunity lost: an opportunity created by the energy and vision of the partnership. Although the new science centre was constructed, as was the massively complex and expensive car park, the loss of The Harbourside Centre was the tipping point which led me to announce my resignation from the council.

Many years later, as Britain and Europe marked a range of centenaries capturing the moments and horrors of the First World War in 2014, my mind was drifting to the rebuilding of Britain once the war was over. The nation was promised a ‘country fit for heroes’. Foremost in this ambition was housing and the Housing and Town Planning Act 1919, later called the Addison Act after the minister who steered it through Parliament.

A specially inscribed spade was given to Bristol City Council to mark the council housing project at Ashton Rise as part of the launch of Homes for Heroes 100. It is accompanied by a copy of John Boughton’s book Municipal Dreams. Boughton’s research underpinned much of our work in 2019. (Evan Dawson)

I had returned to the council in 2016 and was cabinet member for housing. I was keen that Bristol had a celebration of this anniversary. I saw many council tenants as modern-day heroes who were often stigmatised by the local media. The important role that council housing played in shaping the city was another driver. I knew that the council’s housing department did not have the skills or capacity to stage such a commemoration. It was obvious who did: Bristol Ideas.

I pitched the proposal for what became Homes for Heroes 100 and was met with overwhelming enthusiasm. A plan was quickly formed to take the project forward. Within days we were in Exeter sounding out the National Lottery Heritage Fund. The Bristol Ideas team assembled a multi-agency steering group which included council housing officers, librarians, academics, historians and community activists. A programme of events was pulled together and funding was secured.

Bristol Ideas then took on the coordination of the programme. It became evident that Bristol had the most significant celebration planned in the UK, so we started contacting other cities and national bodies, including the Chartered Institute of Housing, the Association of Retained Council Housing and the National Housing Federation, as well as Inside Housing magazine. Some activities were initiated in the areas we contacted but nowhere was able to mobilise the resources and coordination which was available to us through Bristol Ideas and its team.

The programme we produced for Homes for Heroes 100 was eclectic and unique, and included walking tours, a publication of reflections of growing up in council housing, an attempt (sadly unsuccessful) to get Bristol’s ‘Addison Oak’ in Sea Mills elected as Britain’s Tree of the Year, and community-based history events, from intergenerational coffee and cake discussions to a series of talks. As well as providing fundraising, promotional and organisational support, Bristol Ideas was able to draw on its experience of other projects and contribute new ideas. One of its previous successful initiatives was the publication of a free graphic history of Bristol. Bristol Ideas suggested a similar project: creating a graphic magazine which would contain a cartoon family’s story through the years and their life in council housing alongside facts about Bristol’s housing story. It was to be provided free to all the children in the schools in the estates which were built under the Addison Act, and copies were distributed to all of Bristol’s libraries. Fifty thousand copies of the comic were produced. Other cities produced more worthy material but only Bristol Ideas had the vision to develop something which was instantly accessible to people of all ages.

All the projects, events and publications were curated and promoted on the Bristol Ideas website, where they will remain as an ongoing legacy after the organisation has faded away.

This essay is taken from Our Project Was the City: Bristol Ideas 1992-2024, published May 2024.

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