In George Ferguson, Bristol’s first elected mayor is also its innovator-in-chief

Nine English cities said no to having an elected mayor. Bristol voters said yes. The man they picked for the job, architect George Ferguson, wants Bristol to be a model medium-sized city for Britain and all the world — and a place known for fun. Photo Bristol City Council

BRISTOL, England Build a freshwater surfing lagoon. Use vacant buildings as temporary sites for startup companies. Buy and prepare food in bulk for poor communities. Start an annual “clean-up day” on which citizens clear the streets of litter.

These are just a few of the suggestions that have been submitted to “George’s Ideas Lab,” set up by George Ferguson, the new mayor of Bristol. Citizens can go to a website to suggest ways of improving the city. They can also rate or comment on ideas others have already sent in. More than 300 ideas have rolled in since November.

“I’m up for trying new things and in this difficult financial climate we must get creative about what we do and how we do it,” Ferguson said at the site’s launch. “We all have light-bulb moments from time to time. Please share yours to help us solve our problems and enhance the city, however ‘off the wall’.”

The Ideas Lab is characteristic of Ferguson, who speaks often of the importance of doing things differently. Which is fitting, because for Bristol, having a mayor at all is a rather radical new idea.

Directly-elected mayors with executive powers are relatively new to Britain. London was the first to get one, back in 2000, and both men to hold the office first Ken Livingstone and now Boris Johnson achieved high profiles. But only a handful of other cities and towns have opted for a mayoral system. Most places are still run by councillors of whichever political party has managed to gain the largest number of seats in local elections. They have “mayors,” but these men and women fill mostly ceremonial roles.

Most cities seem fine with that. Two years ago, ten of the largest cities in England voted on whether or not to have elected mayors. Nine of the ten said no.

Only Bristol voted in favor. Six months later, Bristol elected Ferguson, who took office in November of 2012 promising to make Bristol “an exemplar medium-sized city.”

Creative city

With a population of 430,000, Bristol is the hub of a city-region of over a million. It has significant pockets of social deprivation, but is prosperous for the most part, with a diverse economy strong in finance, information technology, media and aerospace. Its vibrant knowledge economy is partly driven by its two universities, and two more in nearby Bath.

Bristol likes to think of itself as creative, intelligent and different. This is the home of iconic 1990s rock band Massive Attack, the animation studio that produced Wallace & Gromit, and of street artist and international man of mystery, Banksy. It even has a Festival of Ideas, which hosts a major series of lectures, author readings and panel discussions each May, along with several others through the rest of the year.

Ferguson fits Bristol’s sense of exceptionalism. A slightly-built, bespectacled man in his sixties who always looks a bit unkempt, he could easily be taken for a college professor. In his campaign, he positioned himself as a political independent, and artfully played the outsider card. Party politics, his message went, had let the city down.

The message played well. For many years the Council had been controlled by its Labour or Liberal Democrat groups with weak or non-existent majorities. They were widely seen as more interested in squabbling with one another, and incapable of taking bold decisions. Ferguson promised to rise above factionalism and govern for all of Bristol.

Fun was also part of the package. The thing every Bristolian knows about him is that he wears red trousers. He likes to talk about cities as places for people, about feeding the mind and soul as well as the body, about organising fun events that bring people together. One of his principal commitments is to ensure that Bristol gets a major performance arena to attract music acts.

Andrew Kelly, director of Bristol Festival of Ideas and a partner in the Ideas Lab project, says: “There’s a different feel to the place and doing business with the city council. That required an independent to come in — or a very differently type of leader at least.”

A time of austerity

Independent he may be, but Ferguson is no outsider. An architect and businessman, he has served as President of the Royal Institute of British Architects. In the 1970s, he was a Bristol City Councillor for the Liberal Party.​

Bristol mayor George Ferguson arrives at work on first day in office

Ferguson arrives to work on November 19, 2012, his first day as mayor. Ferguson is known for wearing red trousers, although he has mixed in some green ones since Bristol was named Europe’s “Green Capital” for 2015. Photo Bristol City Council. 

His Tobacco Factory, a fashionable arts venue, café/bar and office space, helped regenerate a district of the city that had fallen on hard times. This gives Ferguson considerable authority to talk about turning neighborhoods around with new businesses and new uses for old buildings.

Britain’s national government is determined to reduce public spending, which leaves Ferguson presiding over massive cuts to the city budget. There have been furious arguments over cuts to the city’s parks and public spaces, to social services, and expansion of elementary schools.

The mayor, as the most recognizable figure in city government, and because he has so much power concentrated in his hands, is taking all the flak for this.

Pursuing an innovation agenda gives Ferguson something more inspiring to talk about than austerity.  Ideas fizz out almost daily from his office and Twitter account. He thinks aloud all the time; should a certain area be pedestrianised? Could we take advantage of Bristol’s circus and acrobatics schools to bring fun and notoriety to the city? Wouldn’t it be great to have an iconic new bridge to link the north and south of the river that flows through Bristol?

The cheaper the idea, the better. On his first day in office he changed the name of the municipal building that Bristol had always known as the Council House. Ferguson named it City Hall, noting that it belonged to the people, not the council. 

“I wanted to demonstrate a new attitude which freed us from an awful lot of the red tape and delayed the decision-making which you get through the party-political system where everything has to go through the party groups and political process,” he said.

Tackling traffic

One of the severest issues Bristol faces is traffic congestion, a problem the council has failed to tackle for decades. 

Ferguson is trying to change the city’s culture, to get people out of cars and onto buses and bicycles. He himself usually rides a bicycle or uses public transport.

One low-cost strategy, borrowed from Bristol’s sister city in France, Bordeaux, is called “Make Sunday Special.” On some Sundays now, Bristol closes much of the city center to vehicle traffic. Instead, there are market stalls, street entertainers, even armchairs and children’s games.

Far more contentious is his implementation of what’s known as Residents Parking Zones across much of the city. Heavy parking charges apply in in these zones, to discourage commuters from travelling in each morning by car. But residents also have to buy annual permits to park near their own homes, leading to howls of outrage. Yet in the areas where it has already been implemented the scheme is very popular because residents no longer have to fight for parking spots near their homes

Following a huge wave of protest he has scaled back the policy, but it’s an interesting illustration of how things have changed. Successive councils have tried to bring in Residents Parking Zones for over a decade, but only succeeded on a small scale. With all his power, and a four-year term of office, Ferguson is gambling that once these zones are in place, everyone will wonder what all the fuss was about.

He does not doubt it is the right thing to do, reckoning that congestion costs the city region around £400 million a year.

“I am prepared to take what are perceived as tough measures in order to deal with transport, and parking is one aspect of that,” Ferguson said in an interview last week. “This is relatively radical in Bristol which is a city where everybody has assumed that they can use their car for whatever they like, and I am prepared to stand up to that and say this is not sustainable either in economic or environmental terms.

“I want to be much more radical in terms of freeing up the centre of the city from private cars. That is hardly innovative — it exists in most civilised European cities.”

Eight-year plan

Ferguson is an inveterate traveller; just over a year into his term of office he has visited European cities, the United States and China in search of business and partnerships, to sell Bristol on the world stage, and to see how they do things elsewhere. He cites mayors of Freiburg in Germany, Bordeaux in France, and Curitiba in Brazil, as inspirations.

“There’s a different feel to the place and doing business with the city council. That required an independent to come in — or a very different type of leader, at least.”

Andrew Kelly
Director, Bristol Festival of Ideas

He was in Nantes last summer when he heard that Bristol had been awarded the title of European Green Capital 2015. Ferguson temporarily exchanged his red trousers for green ones in honor of the award. 

The Green Capital will be one of the defining themes of his mayorship, offering the opportunity to implement a whole raft of initiatives in public transport, energy and sustainable business. For example, a locally owned energy company is being set up to generate wind and solar power, and insulate homes to reduce consumption. He has longer-term ambitions around local food production to free people from dependency on Britain’s powerful supermarket chains.

“He’s pushed European Green Capital hard, and in the right way not as a reward for work done but as a challenge to get work done,” says Andrew Kelly. 

Helen Holland takes a cooler view of the Ferguson administration. Holland is leader of the Labour group of Councillors in Bristol, and a former leader of the council under the previous system. “He has given the role of mayor a high profile,” she says, “but whether he is actually doing things differently, or has made any real progress remains to be seen.”

A common criticism of Ferguson is that he only represents the educated middle classes who elected him. He vehemently rejects the charge, and Holland doesn’t entirely buy it either. “But he is definitely the mayor for the city center,” she says. “Now that’s fine, as it feeds on his expertise from his former life and his knowledge of cities as living places … But he knows that helping the unemployed won’t get him many positive headlines and won’t get any credit among the people who voted for him. They like the wacky stuff.”

For his part, Ferguson says he is in for the long haul and will seek re-election in 2016.

“I’m not doing things for popularity’s sake,” Ferguson says. “I want to leave a legacy of a better city than the one I found. That drives me. I’m not driven by whether I’m re-elected or not. I will stand once more, it would be good to be re-elected, which would take me to 2020, which I think is the proper span to enable real achievement.”

ALSO IN THIS SERIES

In George Ferguson, Bristol’s first elected mayor is also its innovator-in-chief

Interview with George Ferguson

Car-free Sundays in Bristol

With ‘Bristol Pound’ locals keep currency and wealth close to home

Robin Hambleton on Britain’s experiment with directly elected mayors

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Eugene Byrne is an author and freelance journalist in Bristol specializing in current affairs and history. He edits a weekly local history section for the Bristol Post newspaper. Full bio

Learning from Bristol

  • At the “George’s Ideas Lab” website, citizens have offered more than 300 ideas to improve their city. 
  • Some of Ferguson’s most noted ideas, such as closing downtown streets to traffic on Sunday, cost almost nothing.
  • Ferguson is Bristol’s first-ever elected mayor and has been able to make unpopular decisions like increasing charges for parking cars.
  • Bristol is setting up its own energy company to generate wind and solar power and encourage energy efficiency.

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