Mayor George Ferguson reveals long term vision for Bristol
Bristol's elected mayor George Ferguson last night set out his five-year vision for the city when he gave the inaugural Canynges Society lecture at St Mary Redcliffe church. Below, we publish his address.
I SHOULD start by explaining that I was invited to deliver this lecture by your President Sara Hartnell in July last year when she alone thought I might be elected the first city mayor… It was a long shot gamble by Sara that extraordinarily came off and therefore adds a wee bit of weight to my words – but as is characteristic, it does not mean I'm going to be overly careful!
This slightly cavalier attitude of mine I, of course, partly blame on the inimitable late St John Hartnell and his unstoppable entrepreneurial – and sometimes buccaneering – spirit. It was St John's belief in the art of the impossible that made the good ship Matthew and the 1996 Bristol Festival of the Sea happen. He fortunately lured me onto his committee to help plan and deliver the festival and build the Matthew – currently to be seen out of the water at Underfall Yard, bringing back memories of its building at this end of the harbour on Redcliffe Wharf.
Without St John's extraordinary optimism all this simply would not have happened. He did deliver the impossible, including persuading property developer and yachtsman Mike Slade, at a memorable supper party hosted by Sara, to cough up £3 million to get the Matthew built. Never before or since has a property developer parted with so much for something so ephemeral, but from this moment we were in business and Bristol's moment in the limelight was assured.
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OK – I accept that 500th anniversaries of world changing events, such as the discovery of North America (Newfoundland) by John Cabot sailing from Bristol, do not come round too often – but nevertheless I am keen that we recreate that tremendous spirit that Bristol showed in other ways – making sure that we are on the world map as Britain's best city – no less.
To be best city I believe that first of all we have to strive to be the most welcoming city – one that goes out of its way to open its arms to visitors, to give them a great first impression and to take care of them in a way that ensures that they extol our virtues elsewhere. We all know that we are good in many ways but that there is so much unrealised potential – and it is that potential that I would like to share with you, giving the area of Temple and Redcliffe and this, the greatest of all parish churches, as my starting point.
When Britain's greatest exponent of the art of the impossible, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, built the Great Western Railway, starting in 1835, he had envisaged taking it into the City Docks to give a direct transfer onto what were to become the ships of his Great Western Steamship Co, but St John was not around at the time to negotiate required land deals and the city fathers deemed that it stopped at Temple Meads. This has always left the station disconnected from the city it serves which is what attracted me, while we were devising the Millennium Project – now known as At-Bristol – to devising what is now known as the Brunel Mile in 1997. At that point I realised that it was almost an exact Imperial Mile between Temple Meads and the ss Great Britain – the symbolic missing mile in Brunel's great rail and sea journey between London and New York – although that journey via Bristol was, in truth, more in the mind than in reality, with both Liverpool and Southampton picking up the mantle.
My vision for the Brunel Mile – first named the Millennium Mile to suck up to the Millennium Commission who were charged with doling out the lottery millions – was to spiritually represent that missing mile and to provide an attractive, environmentally friendly walk and cycle route, rich in history, between two of Brunel's greatest transport projects. It's practical purpose was to connect the station to the heart and soul of Bristol – its historic floating harbour. Only part of that modest dream is realised, taking longer than the building of the Great Western Railway to complete! I am determined that we now bite the bullet and complete it together with a greater welcome to our city.
Let's just think about that arrival experience today and how, with comparatively little change, it could be massively enhanced. I believe everything is coming together to make sure we do, at long last, bite that bullet and add to the vision to make it a truly great one worthy of a truly ambitious city, not the complacent city that I sometimes feel we have been.
We arrive at Temple Meads on the London train for the first time, having by-passed Bath because we are told by that great architectural historian Sir John Summerson, that "If I had to show a foreigner one English city and one only, to give him a balanced idea of English architecture, I should take him to Bristol, which has developed in all directions, and where nearly everything has happened".
We sweep past that hideous heap of concrete that was the Royal Mail Sorting Office onto the outlying platform 13 or 15 – there is no 14 – to emerge onto the incline where we jump into a smoke smelling blue cab that sweeps us past a dire 1960s office building, part converted into hotel, that still has a hole in it from where a pedestrian bridge used to emerge, past an abandoned petrol filling station, past derelict buildings stranded on a traffic island only to be bowled over by the sight of St Mary Redcliffe as we sweep past it and Chatterton's house and school on a bit of 1950's urban highway. From the ridiculous to the sublime – is this Summerson's 'balanced idea of English architecture'? As the apocryphal American tourist exclaimed "what a crazy idea to build a cathedral (that's St Mary Redcliffe) next to a roundabout".
Let's optimistically imagine five years on – because we are all optimists now. Instead our train brings us into the fast developing Temple Quarter Enterprise Zone with its inspiring mix of new and old buildings, places to live, work and play. We see the brand new Great Western Arena ahead covered in its gleaming photo voltaic skin – the sun always shines – before we swish into Brunel's great passenger shed. Having admired the master's engineering we emerge to the West onto a vibrant Kingdom Place, walk past the fountains and market stalls, to where the biggest urban roundabout in the kingdom used to be, to see St Mary Redcliffe straight ahead, framed between the restored Grosvenor Hotel and the vertical garden of the European Centre for Future Cities – because we are still in Europe.
From here we have the opportunity to be shown into a sweet smelling Bristol blue cab where, with a smile, we are offered a booklet with a warm welcome from the mayor (whoever it may be) and essential visitor information.
Or we cross the square to the new Bristol Metro Hub that links us to the local rail and (electric) bus systems and takes us on a circuit round the central area via the Brunel Mile or to the outlying areas and towns.
Or we unfold our x-composite bike – locally made out of new 'Super-lite' material developed at the Bristol Science Park Composites Centre.
Or we walk down the tree lined Brunel Boulevard element of the Brunel Mile and through New Redcliffe, planned by the local Redcliffe Forum, with the aid of some of the world's best urbanists, as an exemplar piece of regeneration, providing a fitting setting to St Mary's, freed of highway and roundabout, and providing new city spaces giving access to a mix of affordable family housing, independent retail and creative places to work.
The new Poets' Square, housing the Chatterton Institute, a study centre for West Country poetry, fronts the glorious north porch of the church and has become a meeting place for the Redcliffe residential and business community, and a national draw for aspiring poets.
From here our visitor strolls across the Bascule Bridge, past the green roofed leisure development on Redcliffe Wharf – the site of the building of the new Matthew – through the wonderful Queens Square, across Pero's Bridge and St Augustine's Reach fine collection of boats and masts, (in place of today's tupperware tubs) and Millennium Square, alive with families on its summertime urban beach, down the western end of the Brunel Mile towards the famous new folding bridge, that has been compared with Brunel's work as a miracle of British engineering, which springs across the harbour to Brunel's ss Great Britain. Exactly one mile.
Remember I am imagining here, not promising!
Our visitor takes an electric water taxi round the docks and back to the Centre which is alive with people, musicians and performers on the water front and in front of the Hippo- drome on this car-free weekend. We walk across the Centre and up the fully pedestrianised Clare and Corn Street through the market to the High Cross which is symbolised by the competition-winning sculpture that stands in its place at the cross roads of Corn Street, Broad Street and the new High Street and Wine Street (this takes the place of the disgraceful dereliction that is currently the disastrous mixture of 1940s bombing, 1960s planning, 1980s dithering and 21st-century timidity).
The Dutch House – an approximation of the famous timber-framed building that commanded the corner of the missing quarter of the old city before it was destroyed in the blitz, is now represented by a splendid new oak framed building built by local master carpenters and apprentices, and houses the city model and Reece Winstone photographic collection on the ground floor. We walk down the narrow Mary le Port Lane and into Eve Balfour Square, named after the founder of the Soil Association, surrounded by independent local and organic food shops and cafés, including a glass-covered restaurant in the ruins of the bombed church.
I think you get my drift. We are at a moment in history when, in spite of enormously challenging economic times, we could genuinely raise Bristol's game. I arrived in Bristol in 1965 when 'blitz-weed' seemed to be growing everywhere out of bombed buildings and sites. In many ways I feel we have still not recovered since the war – but there is a new spirit afoot and things are coming together in the form of the Local Enterprise Partnership, and a more joined up approach to transport that could and should go so much further if we are to plan as a truly integrated Bristol/Bath City Region that recognises that we cannot plan transport, housing, leisure, health or anything else in isolation.
I have the ambition that we together make Bristol a worthy European Green Capital, and for that we need to be prepared to be radical. It is not about 'hair shirt' but about a healthier and happier city – a city that is fit for children and inspiring for all – one city in which we all play our part to eliminate poverty and isolation.
I know that democracy and environmental progress don't always gel, because too often people don't recognise the great benefits until after they have happened.
I believe that Bristol is in a prime position to become a beacon of sustainability. I want to grab the opportunity that the Government has given us and make Bristol a laboratory for change. We must harness the considerable talent that exists in Bristol, in industry, commerce and the voluntary sector. We also have an extraordinary range of skills in terms of technology from Bristol's universities. These provide a strong foundation to create a blueprint for sustainability that will attract international interest and inward investment. I would like to see Bristol becoming an energy hub, (Solar City, sounds better than Windy City), minimising energy consumption and generating a high proportion of demand with renewables. We have the local expertise.
Bristol 'maritime city' could become 'water city' – why have we let Birmingham beat us to it? A barrier at Avonmouth will almost certainly become necessary for flood defences and, together with a lock adjacent to Bathurst Basin and the General Hospital could possibly help create leisure and transport routes across the city.
Children and young people are the ones who will be most affected by a failure to improve our environment right across Bristol. Every school should be involved so that every child feels an identity with making their city a greener place. If we make the city better for children and young people, with cleaner air, improved open spaces and safer roads we will make it better for all of us. We must out-Copenhagen Copenhagen!
I shall end with the thoughtful words of the Canadian pioneer Nelson Henderson to his son "The true meaning of life is to plant trees under whose shade you do not expect to sit".
Let's get on with it – it's possible.