Mayor Election 2016: Meet the mayor candidate: George Ferguson
As George Ferguson walks from our table to get a cup of tea at the Tobacco Factory bar, conveniently located under his apartment on the top floor of the building, the man sitting on the next table leans in.
“I know who that is,” he says, his eyes widening as he watches the red trousers drift into the crowd. “He’s the mayor, isn’t he?”
I explain the interview and there’s some mixed emotions in his face. Yes, he thinks he is “a good guy”, but isn’t he the one who got caught speeding after introducing 20mph zones all over the place?
Yes. And the rest. Ferguson’s term in power as Bristol’s first directly elected mayor has been one of global headlines for the city and himself.
But it also hasn’t gone by without its controversies; think speeding tickets and swearing at constituents. And then the biggest controversy of all – the “p” word.
“I don’t want to be known as the mayor of parking,” mayor Ferguson says, as he returns with his cuppa and I ask what is his greatest regret of his term at City Hall.
“There’s a difference between regret and not doing everything right. You haven’t tried if you haven’t made a mistake.”
So, it was a mistake?
“I felt at the time that the worst thing is to be afraid, but actually I think I could have done more to explain what I was doing.”
He adds that he’s confident that now, almost three years since he made the announcement, he finally has the majority of Bristol on his side over his controlled parking policies.
“I knew what I had to do. It had to be done. And we’d dithered too long. Leadership is about delivering. Leadership is about using your skills and information and having the balls to do it.”
If not doing enough to explain parking changes has been his biggest failure, what does he see as his greatest success?
“Changing the mood in Bristol,” he says without skipping a beat. He argues that he’s turned Bristol around from a place of failure and inertia to a forward-thinking and fast developing city.
“Bristol had suffered with having a reputation of not getting on with things, not delivering major projects and the great success is to create a much better mood in Bristol. I think there’s greater pride in Bristol now.”
He later explains that he sees his long and varied life as a series of convenient six-year projects – and he’s still only halfway through this one.
“This is my latest project,” he says. “I think it’s all a matter of pacing yourself,” he adds, reflecting on how it’s gone so far.
His previous projects are littered throughout his life. Born in Winchester, where his grandparents lived, Ferguson never spent more than two years in one place as a child as his father moved around the country and Europe as a major in the army.
He is “lucky to be alive”, he says, after contracting polio as a child, which has left him with a life-long limp. “I think these things form your character and make you bloody determined,” he says.
“At school, yes I was a bit lame, but I played rugby, I did all the things I could and was determined to keep up with everybody else and, yeah I don’t regret anything in my life.”
Both he and his younger brother were sent away to boarding school – subsidised by the armed forces – in Wellington from the age of eight to 17.
“As a result of it I would never have sent my children away to school,” he says now. “But nevertheless, I think there were lots of good things about it and I made great friendships.”
It was there that he found the resources in the art room which eventually inspired him to become an architect. He studied architecture in the very first year an architecture department opened at the University of Bristol.
After moving here, he promptly fell in love with the city, its citizens and, he says, some of the other students. One of them he went on to marry and have three children with, one of whom lives off North Street and one of whom became one of the youngest judges in the country. He is now separated.
Before he served as a Lib Dem councillor in Bristol in the 1970s, Ferguson first became political in the midst of the post-war rebuilding scheme where he objected to major developments including a bypass over the Floating Harbour and council tower blocks in Cliftonwood, where he then lived.
He bought his house there with the proceeds of a pub game called Spin Pin which he sold the patent for. “I got £300 which was a deposit for the house and got student friends to help pay the mortgage.
“We did the house up. Then I realised they were planning to knock the whole place down so I painted my house red, or terracotta.
“A guy down the road painted his blue and that started the coloured houses in Cliftonwood. It was part of a campaign to retain Cliftonwood from new tower blocks. That was the Bristol I came to.”
Those colourful houses on the hill not only helped save the area from the tower blocks now dotting the skyline of Kingsdown, but went on to define Bristol and its image – appearing in regular postcards of the city now. As much as, perhaps, Ferguson and his red trousers has come to define the city’s politics to many outsiders.
“You know, this red trouser thing may be a joke, but it’s also incredibly helpful in engaging with people,” he says, as he rises from his chair for our walk outside.
He doesn’t get far, though. A man colouring in over a beer recognises the flash of red and stops him to ask him what he’s doing about the number of off licences close to schools around North Street.
As we walk down North Street towards Ashton Gate, marveling at the new stadium rising up above the houses, cars speed by well above 20mph and we return to a few of the common criticisms leveled at him.
“I’m not anti-car,” he explains for the millionth time. “I think the car has been wonderful in liberating people. What I’m anti is the idiotic use of the car and having 85 per cent of commuter cars being driver-only.
“Yes, I’m asking people to question the way we use the car. Anyway, there are now less people driving in the city. And 25 per cent more taking buses. We’re going in the right direction.”
But his motoring policies have all been carried through amid criticism that he hasn’t asked the people of Bristol if they really want it. So, is he the dictator he’s made out to be by some members of the public and certain councillors who say they’ve lost their voice since his election?
“I don’t recognise that. I take it really seriously and I know I listen,” he says, before adding: “Maybe I don’t appear to listen enough.”
He returns to the inertia which he feels came before him. “So many conversations and a lack of action. So you’ve got to get the balance right. Sometimes, yes, I do take a decision.
“You have to say, ‘well we’ve done enough talking about this, we have to go on and do it’, and you’ve got to bear in mind I have a mandate from the whole of Bristol.”
I put another criticism to him: that he is a privileged outsider, a non-Bristolian from a private school who doesn’t have the whole city in his heart.
“I think that’s extraordinary. I would never criticise somebody for things they can’t change in their life,” he says.
“I don’t know what sort of privilege they mean,” he adds as a group pass us on the pavement, one turning to surreally shout: “There goes that Ferguson, off for his foot bath!”
Ferguson insists: “Most people are friendly, even if they are teasing me.”
He continues: “We weren’t rich. I didn’t come from a highly-educated family. I’ve had my challenges, I’ve made my way in my life.
“Of course I’m luckier than some people who are destitute or in particularly challenging circumstances, but I would never ever judge anybody by the path that was given to them rather than they chose.”
He says he’s a self-made man. “Everything I’ve got, I’ve made. But I’m assumed to be rich. I’ve used money I’ve made for good purpose.
“It’s not about accumulation, it’s about making things happen. Money has no value to me unless it’s doing something good.”
Before our time comes to an end, I tell him that he is rude, repeating back to him his own quotes caught on camera including the f*ck off, jerk and lunatic.
He laughs loudly. “People have got to understand the context. What happens with social media and camera phones is people get the end of a very long engagement. And that gets repeated and repeated. I should think I’ve told two people to eff-off in the three and a half years.
And that’s a good record?
Yeah, well, any normal person…,” he stops himself. He adds: “I think my ratings went up after that.”
But he does lose his head quickly?
“No,” he says. “Look, I think I’ve learned to deal with extreme provocation more calmly than I did. But it is extreme provocation.”
Some of the provocation he says he opens himself up to by being an active mayor who attends events like the Bearpit party (where he told someone to eff-off) or the anarchist book fair (where he was pushed over and had a cup of tea poured over him).
“I just rock up places on my own,” he says. “It does surprise people. But if you want to connect with people it’s much better being on your own rather than having a load of bodyguards around you and I’m not afraid.”
As we return to the Tobacco Factory, where he is meeting with other residents from apartments upstairs who are having leaving drinks, we return to the upcoming elections.
Whether he gets to see out his “latest project” or not, there are no plans to wind down, even at 69 years old.
“I get more and more energetic. The more I have to do the more I thrive on it. There’s a guy who comes in here. He’s 96, Ray, he comes in here every day and he cycles here.
“He fell off his bike, and I thought we’d never see him again and he was back in a couple of weeks. Yeah, I want to be like Ray,” he laughs.
“But, you know, I wish whoever wins – and it will be Marvin if it’s not me – I wish them the best of luck because I want Bristol to succeed whoever is in power.
“And I would thank them for giving me my life back,” he smiles.
“But I don’t really want to do that, because I really want to win. It would be very unsatisfactory for me not to be able to complete the work I’ve been doing.”
Bristol24/7 is hosting a mayoral hustings featuring all candidates at The Lantern at 7pm on Thursday, April 28. Entrance is first come first served. For more information, visit www.colstonhall.org/shows/mayoral-hustings/