This article was originally published in the Bristol Globe in June 2013 - By Charlotte Sexauer.
CHARLOTTE SEXAUER chats to the red-trousered architect who became Bristol’s first elected mayor in 2012.
George Ferguson is looking forward to working with two colleagues who might have been considered rivals for the role of the city’s public representative. Bangladesh-born Faruk Choudhury is the city’s first Muslim to be Lord Mayor, the city’s ceremonial leader, while the new High Sheriff – the Queen’s representative in the city – is Dr Shaheen Chaudhry, born in Pakistan but brought up in Knowle. Commenting on the diversity the trio represent George says: “It’s wonderful, it sends out all the right signals.
“I want Bristol to be welcoming – without judgement, whatever people’s circumstances, and that applies to asylum seekers as it does to anybody else.”
In January he wrote to the Home Secretary demanding that local authorities be allowed to assist refugees in danger of destitution. The move came after the council passed a City of Sanctuary-inspired motion condemning Government policy which forces asylum seekers into penury.
“The Government needs to have a more human stance. No civilised city should be prepared to leave anybody in a state of total destitution,” he says. In the longer term he hopes for a happier Bristol with “much greater recognition of other people’s needs. We’re quite a divided place but need to strive to be more united.”
He cites his proudest achievement, the conversion of the Tobacco Factory theatre and leisure complex in Bedminster, which he saved from demolition, as a perfect example of “regeneration through mixed uses and an incremental approach which is people-based.
“It was the place where everybody worked; it was the heart of the area. We’ve given it a new purpose, brought in life, work, all forms of use. That’s helped regenerate the area and He’d like to use the lessons he learned to improve other parts of the city, but knows it’s not that easy. Though he has big plans for an arena in Temple Meads to bring everyone together, George doesn’t think buildings are the answer.
“Life has moved on. Huge institutions are dominating the market and their interest is in turning things around, not in city making.”
He regrets the council’s over- centralisation of services and the tendency to rely on big national and international contractors rather than keeping things local.
“Things are done the cheap, hassle-free way, but people feel disconnected from the services, and it doesn’t benefit the local economy to take the money out of the city rather than recirculating it.
“You engender local spirit and a much healthier and sustainable economy if these services are provided on a smaller scale. Bristol has a huge ‘third sector’ and we could use it much more effectively,” he says, acknowledging the hard work done by community organisations and charities.
He has put his money where his mouth is by taking his salary in Bristol Pounds, the local currency devised by a not-for- profit social enterprise.
Things need to change if Bristol is to be a healthier, happier and greener city, and George says he won’t hesitate to be strict where he needs to. “I’m going to be really tough on transport. It’s not sustainable to have everybody driving cars.”
He wants to see “a much more walkable city, with better air quality, and where we’re a bit less selfish about the way we do things”.
He has been inspired by Copenhagen and Bordeaux which took radical steps to make their city centres attractive and welcoming, and is keen for Bristol, which has twice been shortlisted, to achieve the status of a European Green Capital.
Running the city has been a challenge thus far. “There’s always going to be things thrown my way, but nothing beyond expectation,”says George whose four year term began with “a little hiccup”.
Having resigned from the Liberal Democrats to run as an independent he was determined to form an all-party cabinet, but Labour would not play ball.
“I ended up with three out of four main political parties in my cabinet, which only goes to illustrate the strings are pulled from somewhere else,” he says
ruefully. “ It’s wonderful for me to be an independent, because I can take decisions that are not bound by party negotiations.”
After the 2013 elections which gave Labour a majority on the City Council, the party has agreed to join the city cabinet.
Original image by PaulNUK [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons