Q & A with George Ferguson, mayor of Bristol
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.
Q: What does good local economic development look like?
A: We absolutely don’t believe that the only measure is GDP. We are encouraging people like Happy Cities to create a more meaningful measure that is as much about wellbeing as it is about the economy in traditional ways. I have broached the idea with the Core Cities group that we should try to develop a different type of measurement that is not just about the commercial.
Take the latest announcement about Sunday trading, for example. A narrow view would say the success of a city is all about commerce and would liberate Sunday trading. But I believe that is damaging to the soul of the city and it’s better have a day that is a bit different. Every decision takes that into account rather than just thinking about money.
Quality of life is one of Bristol’s USPs. It supports our economy by attracting business. I sometimes have to fight my own citizens to achieve that – some who don’t see beyond the bonnet of their car or their bank balance. Until you have brought it home to people with visible benefits they don’t get it and think you are being a hippy.
Q: What does being European Green Capital 2015 bring to the city?
A: We are halfway through now and have given out £2m of grants for local projects, have signed up 200 businesses to different ways of working and launched a big education programme. On an international level Bristol is much more recognised. I was with the president of France two weeks ago and with the Pope this week. As a small global city as we are co-hosting the cities pavilion at the Paris Climate Change summit where we will be showcasing 100 transformative actions with cites across the world. We are playing a role in opening other cities eyes to this whole agenda.
We recently published our quality of life survey and have seen a huge shift to active transport. We are by far the most successful cycling city of core cities: we have more cyclists than Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool put together.
‘I am unashamed about being as entrepreneurial
as we can… as the government cuts us off at the knees’
Q: How is the Green Capital programme reaching into poorer areas?
A: It’s tougher to reach into marginalized areas. We are intent on spreading the grants programme into more impoverished areas but it’s inevitable that the organisations delivering the grants are more central.
We have set up our own energy company – Bristol Energy – and this won’t be a minority sport. This will play a huge part in terms of the provision of energy across Bristol and beyond and hopefully we will tackle fuel poverty and make sure we give people a much better deal.
We are determined to reduce our carbon output and are also looking for other income sources as the government cuts us off at the knees. I am unashamed about being as entrepreneurial as we can. The company will be low carbon rather than carbon zero but, the bigger we get, the bigger the proportion of renewables. We have already built two mega wind turbines and are putting solar on own buildings and investing over £100m on insulation.
Q: How are devolution plans for the city region progressing?
A: We are at the first stage. We’ve now agreed on a strategic governance review and will move towards being a combined authority. We are not going back to being the county of Avon which is something people tend to fear. There is some resistance to going for metro mayor and I’m wasting my time saying it should be dependent on that so I don’t. It is a generally agreeable conversation about how we are moving towards devolution – particularly on transport and on strategic planning and skills.
Q: What does your emphasis on fun bring to the city?
A: I take every opportunity to enable people to open their streets and we are extending the Make Sundays Special programme into communities, with one taking place on Stapleton Road, which is a very culturally mixed community. I think it comes back to me saying it shouldn’t all be about commerce but about life and families. My driving principle is about making it a child friendly city. If you make a city that is friendly to children you make a city that is good for all. I have a major child in me.
Clare Goff is Editor at New Start magazine