Could an idea inspired by the St Paul’s riots be the answer to road rage? Back in the 80s a group of Bristol Quakers felt that a different approach was needed to help resolve disputes between communities and individuals. Inspired by similar projects in London and Brighton they developed skills in mediation, aimed at avoiding conflict while addressing people’s disagreements. By the early 90s the Bristol Mediation Service was established and funded to help reduce tensions in the Southmead area by involving local people.
Now, 25 years later, the City Council has asked them to look into the battle for Bristol’s streets. We asked BMS Project Manager Julie Cox to tell us more …
Q. So does this mean you’re going out on the streets looking for trouble?
A. No! This is very much starting from scratch because nobody’s done this sort of thing before. We’re calling it Road Sharing – a Restorative Approach and the idea is to find out what different groups of road users feel are the issues and what they want. Then we will bring them all together and see if we can generate effective communication between them leading to a better understanding of how they feel.
Q. How will that work?
A. We’ve identified ten kinds of road user – pedestrians, cyclists, private drivers, disabled road users and so on. We’re inviting people to put themselves forward under each category and then we’ll have separate group meetings. Each group will pick three representatives to go on to a conference where all the points of view will be considered. We’ll try to find ways forward that could make things better.
Q. And then what happens?
A. Well the Council are really quite open. They haven’t promised to implement anything as such but they will respond to what the conference produces.
Q. What else does Bristol Mediation Service do?
A. Our core work has always been dealing with neighbourhood-based conflict issues and we have around 150 cases a year. Then we are part of the Bright Outlook programme for young people on the edge of offending behaviour, helping them to think through the consequences of getting caught up in the criminal justice system. They often have a false idea of how easy it might be. We help them express how they feel and also understand how their behaviour affects others, maybe do some conflict resolution with their families or communities. We’re also part of the Bristol Restorative Justice Scheme in South Gloucester and BANES.
Q. There’s that word again: restorative. What does it mean?
A. It’s a victim-led response to crime. The victim gets to meet and ask questions of the person who harmed them, to tell them how they were affected by their actions. It can really help the victim to feel safer, that they weren’t personally targeted, and make the perpetrator better understand what they have done. It often leads to a reduction in re-offending. It can be seen as a soft option but it’s not – it usually runs alongside other outcomes, anyway – and the most frightened person is usually the offender.
Q. When Bristol Mediation was started in the 80s it was breaking new ground. Now there’s restorative justice programmes and workplace mediation – even road use mediation! Has the method finally become accepted?
A. I think it has, but there’s still a way to go. It definitely works and it’s the way forward but there are people in the legal profession who still don’t get it. They prefer to take the aggressive confrontational approach on their client’s behalf but then the client doesn’t have a voice. With mediation they are always heard and that alone is empowering. When we go ahead it’s about 90% successful, people don’t feel threatened or harassed. We’re much more flexible, too. We look at the wider picture – people have complex lives – to see what other issues might be making it difficult to communicate. We do a lot of signposting to other agencies but we never tell people what to do, it’s their choice.
Q. So, with all this mediation experience, you must be a very reasonable person …
A. Ha! Well, obviously the training can slip into your everyday life. My children always tease me: ‘Mum! You’re doing the mediation thing again!’
For more information about Bristol Mediation, including an application form to join the Road Sharing consultation, check: bristol-mediation.org