Bristol’s first mayor George Ferguson on how a bit more ‘wacky’ might be what Cambridge needs
What can Cambridge learn from Bristol?
The first independent mayor of a major UK city was bound to be controversial. Festivals, pedestrianising streets and tree planting schemes were all introduced by George Ferguson, the first mayor of Bristol who held the office between 2012 and 2016.
He will be in Cambridge this week to share his thoughts on how Cambridge could benefit from being a bit more “wacky”.
George was successful in the bid to make Bristol the European Green Capital in 2015, and it’s this, he says, that “gave him the excuse” to push for a more environmentally friendly city, restricting motor vehicle use against strong opposition.
He introduced Make Sundays Special, closing streets to vehicles (George says “opening streets to pedestrians”) and hosting events on selected Sundays in the summer. He also started the city’s biennial Circus Festival which spans four weeks, and a grafitti festival.
“Winning the European Green Capital enabled me to bring in a lot of change that otherwise I might not have had an excuse for,” George told the Cambridge Independent. “I think it’s environmental changes that push very much in the right direction in terms of Bristol’s character. I think those are the things I’m most proud of. Things like that in the long run I think will have changed people’s lives.
“If you talk sustainability to people I think they can glaze over, but if you talk health I think people understand it. Actually, they are exactly the same thing.”
“I feel very strongly that a good city is a city that’s good for young people and children. If you make a child-friendly city it’s a good city for us all.”
Environmental health, George says, is one of the factors that makes Bristol a “cool” city. Green policies and a vibrant cultural scene go hand in hand.
“Using culture as a way of opening people’s eyes to the bigger possibilities I think is a really important thing to do. That is part of Bristol’s cool.
“I declared Bristol a circus city; we have more circus activity than any city in the UK. Some will write me off as the circus mayor – I wear red trousers and I’m a clown and all that – but cultural activity is just as important in terms of people’s attachment to their city, the good feel for a city, whether you’re rich or poor, as those big infrastructure projects.
“I think it’s those slightly wacky things that are really attractive to young people but actually contribute to making it a better place. I’ve always said that Bristol is a good city because of those individuals that take initiative and make things happen. It’s not a good city because of the leader. Good leadership is about saying yes and encouraging those things to happen.”
Being independent, George says, played a big part in that.
“I share a lot of Labour party values but I think there’s much greater flexibility in having people who have a clarity about their job, and that is representing their place and not their party.
“That is a real practical issue. The required changes needed to tackle some of the environmental and public health issues in our cities tread on people’s toes. The required changes affect people’s vote.
“A party politician’s whole raison d’être is to be elected. It was never my raison d’être. Mine was to make my city that I have spent my whole working life in a better place.
“If you’re a political party getting elected is your purpose and therefore it tends towards a lack of action. Certainly a lack of courage. I knew that if I was to make restrictions to the way people use their cars I would get a lot of opposition. I was warned by good people on the council in political parties that it would be a very dangerous thing to do, but I decided that was why I would do it. Otherwise it would take 20 years to make the changes that I made in three years.
“You haven’t got time to prove a project’s worth by the end of your first term. People tend to judge change out of fear, that somehow it’s going to be bad. Now I can’t walk around Bristol without people stopping me to thank me. Some of the same people who used to curse me and tell me that I was going to kill their neighbourhood because I wasn’t going to allow cars in now get it, because it’s happened and they’ve experienced it.”
George Ferguson is talking at the Federation of Cambridge Residents Associations event Making a Green City on Friday, April 20 at the Perse School on Hills Road. Book a place at fecra.org.uk.