Big Issue co-founder John Bird has urged Bristol businesses to be more socially aware and get involved in local politics to ensure the poor and homeless do not become dependent on State handouts and charity.
In a wide-ranging and frank keynote speech at last night’s Bristol Chamber of Commerce annual dinner, Mr Bird drew on his experiences in Bristol and how they shaped his vision for the Big Issue.
He also revealed his next project – Big Issue Answers – a 200-page online magazine which will be written and produced by homeless people trained in new skills.
Born into poverty, taken into care when his parents became homeless and, as a teenager petty criminal, a resident of various reform institutes, Mr Bird experienced from the inside the way those on the margins of society were given everything expect a way out of poverty.
“After getting into trouble once too often I was sent to a reformatory near Charterhouse public school in Surrey,” he said. “Charterhouse was then the third best school in the country and it cost £60 a week to send a child there. But it cost the taxpayer £72 a week to keep us at the reformatory,” he said.
It was only when he learnt to read and write at 16 that he was able to escape poverty. “The trajectory of my life had suddenly changed. I discovered culture. I got rid of all the poison dumped in my head because I realised it was not enough for people to be poor, but they were also expected to think poor.”
He first visited Bristol when his then girlfriend – the granddaughter of former Chancellor of the Exchequer and Bristol MP Sir Stafford Cripps – got a place at Bristol University and because “the police in London wanted to talk to me about certain things”.
“I spent a wonderful year here and ended up running an antiques shop on St Michael’s Hill,” he said. “Some of the people I got to know were hippies and Bristol always seemed to have a different way of looking at things.”
Returning to London he started to think about ways of helping the homeless help themselves. “I wanted to give them the opportunity to earn the money to buy their own booze or drugs – not steal from other people to do it,” he said
He later came back to Bristol when he was forming the idea for the Big Issue, speaking to homeless organisations such as Emmaus Bristol – the Chamber’s chosen charity – the Cyrenians and Shelter. “I got the idea of doing something unique – give homeless people a way to make their own money and give them a route out of poverty,” he said.
The Big Issue, launched in 1981, revolutionised the way the homeless are seen by society, he said, and it was now time for a serious debate about the dependency culture and how to help people lift themselves out of poverty.
The key was supporting families – and the Government needed to go further. “They need to get dirty with this. We need tough love,” he said, adding that the 250 business leaders gathered at the dinner at The Grand Hotel should play their part by being more socially aware and getting involved.
Chamber president Michael Bothamley had earlier updated guests on the Chamber’s support for an elected mayor for Bristol – but as the first step to a ‘metro’ mayor for the wider city-region – and its willingness to work with Bristol City Council over the controversial workplace parking levy. Mr Bothamley, who is ending his three-year term of office as president, also praised the success of West of England Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) for gaining enterprise zone status for land near Temple Meads station and successfully lobbying for electrification of the main rail line to London.
The evening started with a performance by young people from The Station – Bristol’s new city centre youth hub.
The dinner was sponsored by South Gloucestershire and Stroud College and AirFrance/KLM with Bristol Business News as media partner.
PUBLICATION: Bristol Business News - 2nd April 2012