Bristolians bask in optimism with first elected mayor
November 22, 2012
I’m in a weird mood. It’s not something I’ve felt for a long time and at my time of life I thought I’d never feel it again. I’m feeling hopeful and even a little giddy with excitement. You see, there’s a new man in my life. I wasn’t expecting to feel like this about Bristol getting its first elected mayor, but there’s a growing mood of optimism in this city that’s just irresistible.
I’ve never been fond of George Ferguson, but since he won the mayoral election last week I’ve been full of hope. I’m not the only one feeling it; Bristol University’s policy studies department has officially declared that Bristol is feeling optimistic since electing him, so I’m not having some weird mid-life crisis. Well, not alone at least.
When Bristol went to the polls it chose independents for mayor and for Police and Crime Commissioner: Ferguson the former and Sue Mountstevens the latter (who romped home with 60,000 votes more than her nearest rival). I believe that these results were Bristol absolutely rejecting the petty politicking that’s stagnated this city for decades.
We gracefully ignored Ferguson’s hastily abandoned Lib Dem party membership and we’ve managed to forget that he was Bristol’s first Liberal councillor back in the 1970s. People seemed to embrace his independence and he’ll make a whole lot of voters very angry if he favours any of the major parties.
His nearest rival was the Labour candidate, Marvin Rees, who was 6,000 votes behind and he seems a really nice guy but he appeared to get more eaten up by the party machine as the campaigning evolved. I saw him answer too many questions with glib stabs at national issues which made him look like he’d lost his Bristolian roots and thus his strongest asset. The party inner circle should have let his natural charm shine instead of polishing him up into something Westminster Labour would approve of.
On his first day in office Ferguson changed the name of the Council House to City Hall, a symbolic move to indicate ownership by the people rather than the councillors. Just as well, because proper Bristolians pronounced it ‘counts louse’ which confused the tourists. I like the new name, it makes Bristol feel like Gotham city.
He also abolished Sunday parking charges and proposed closing the parts of the city centre to traffic for one Sunday each month as they do in our twin city of Bordeaux. He said his approach to this type of initiative will not be bogged down in surveys, report and consultants; it’ll be ‘Let’s just do it and see how it turns out.’ This statement has been met with massive approval in a city that’s been hamstrung by councillors’ fear of action, brought about by the ridiculous election by thirds we have to put up with. Let’s hope he’s got the power to change that to all our elections.
One of his first jobs is to put together a cross-party cabinet from people who can’t work with each other and won’t want to work with him. It’ll be a test of his not inconsiderable charm and determination to wade through the deep disunity of Bristol politics to create something harmonious – like rubber knickers: it’s a nice idea but hard to pull off. But he’s not underestimating the challenge and has already met the four party leaders to begin negotiations.
The real test of the next four years is whether Bristol’s entrenched transport problems can be resolved. The city is in the grip of First Bus who seem beyond the censure of the council, charging extortionate fares in return for an abysmal service. Ferguson has stated he intends to set up an integrated transport authority (ITA) with neighbouring Somerset and Gloucestershire in the hope of finding the same solutions ITA’s have provided for other major cities. But even before Ferguson took office north Somerset councillors have stated they will oppose an ITA and prefer to keep the same ‘partnership’ approach that has delivered nothing but aborted projects for years, costing millions in the process. Clearly not everyone’s feeling Bristol’s new found appetite for change. Maybe if they keep up the opposition Bristol should impose a congestion charge on every car entering the city that’s registered in a neighbouring county.
I’m not completely rose-tinted in my view and can still roll my eyes at his publicity stunts such as taking his £51k salary in Bristol Pounds, which means aside from his red trousers he must be capable of surviving on posh coffee, kinesiology and cake, because you can’t buy much else with it, certainly not the ordinary stuff mere mortals need like bog roll and toothpaste. The truth is, of course, that he’s so rich that he can afford this rather extravagant gesture. Still, if he lavishes it all on small local businesses I shouldn’t be so snarky.
Ferguson is an architect with a strong history of regeneration projects and that feeds my hope that he’s a man with the ability to not only see the potential for change, but to get on and make it happen.