Q & A with George Ferguson, mayor of Bristol
July 28, 2015
George Ferguson is Bristol’s first independent mayor and is proud of doing things differently. He talks to New Start about ‘good’ local economic development, getting the city cycling, and turning Bristol into an urban laboratory.
Q: Bristol is a tale of two cities with areas of great wealth but also high levels of poverty. What is being done to bridge the gap?
A: I would say that this problem is more acute in Bristol than in any of the core cities – certainly any of the northern ones – because we are relatively prosperous compared to other places. There are greater extremes in relative wealth in the city and property and rents are higher. Unless you are in social housing, 80% of the market is unaffordable and many poor people are left without the essentials of life. It’s a major issue.
Q: How are you attempting to ensure more people can access the wealth of the city?
A: I’ve set up mayoral commissions, one on fairness and another on education and skills. We have to make sure that education establishments and employers are working much more closely to get people into more inspiring jobs. In poorer areas the best jobs you can get are shelf-stacking. We need to do more of what’s happening in places such as the Knowle West Media Centre, a cutting edge organisation in one of the poorer areas of the city.
‘This reputation of Bristol being a fun, festival,
liveable city has longer term economic repercussions’
Q: How does the city do economics differently?
A: I think we have a more enlightened business sector than we used to have. I’ve worked closely with them. More of them see that they should be contributing socially and environmentally. One of the most visible alternative economic approaches is Bristol Pound. We supported it from the earliest stages and now we can pay our bus fares, train fares, council tax, and business rates with it. It’s still a minority sport and but it punches way above its weight in terms of its influence. There are thousands of businesses engaging with it. I am paid in Bristol Pounds so I’m always seeking new people to take them. More than anything, it marks us out and shows an attitude and it’s brilliant for me to give a one to an ambassador or a president. This reputation of Bristol being a fun, festival, livable city has longer term economic repercussions.
Q: Can the Bristol Pound scale up?
A: The people who did the conversion of the council’s offices took part of their fee in Bristol Pounds. It does have potential to scale up but it is a complementary currency. We have scaled up Totnes or Stroud onto a city level and that experimentation fits with my theme of us being a really useful urban laboratory, a place that people can play with.
Q: What role does the social sector play in local economic strategy in the city?
A: The board of the local enterprise partnership does unfortunately look quite traditional, as it is dominated by ageing white men. But below board level there is a system of business sectors and one of those is the social enterprise sector that feeds in and provides advice. We also have a small business group, an equalities group and environment group. We have deliberately made space for people from the social enterprise and voluntary sectors to have a voice.
Clare Goff is Editor at New Start magazine