Post editor interviews mayor George Ferguson as he prepares for first budget
Bristol's first elected mayor George Ferguson is about to deliver his first difficult budget. Mike Norton spoke to him about it and his first weeks as mayor.
IT is just six weeks since George Ferguson was swept in to City Hall on a wave of voter enthusiasm for his political independence. And sitting in his temporary office alongside the city's political leaders, it is neither they nor the noise from College Green outside that preoccupies him.
What seems to concern him most is the passing of time: "I am very aware of time rushing by," he says. "I have just three and a half years left to go and there are certain things that I am absolutely determined to deliver."
Time was certainly not kind to Bristol's first elected mayor. Within weeks of getting the job, he found himself facing a budget cut of £35m: "I have had deep concerns about some of it and I lost sleep over it in the early stages. At least it hasn't got worse over the Christmas period, which I feared it would. It seems to have settled on £35m, which is slightly, fractionally better than I thought it would be."
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"I think we've been pretty clever in making sure that the majority of cuts come out of administration and a different way of doing things – all those things that I've been trying to do."
That will, he admits, mean job losses – but he will not yet reveal how many: "There will be job losses. The council can't employ people for the sake of it. If a service is being cut, then jobs have to be cut."
And how does he feel about that? "Well I don't feel good about it. But all I can say is that the cuts are a lot less damaging than they might have been by being reasonably clever about different ways of doing things."
But he is quick to qualify that, and to refer again to time: "I say reasonably clever but we haven't had enough time to make radical changes."
It's clear that this forthcoming budget is nothing more than a distraction, albeit a painful one: "These figures have been worked on for the last six months and I've come in for the last month. The effect we've had is one of adjustment. All I've really been able to do is take choices."
And, in doing so, he has relied heavily on his Conservative cabinet member for finance – and former mayoral opponent – Geoff Gollop: "He's been an extremely useful ally in this, very level-headed and complementary to me."
But it's still a distraction – away from George's longer-term goal to reinvent the council and the city. And it's then you remember that George Ferguson is an architect, that he won't be satisfied with patching the council's roof. He seems to want to knock down the institution and replace it with something much more modern, more befitting of a forward-looking city like Bristol.
"The radical changes will come over the next three years," he promises. "Next year, I want to look at a three-year budget that is built up from a zero base rather than looking at chopping bits and pieces."
And – as if to stress that different approach – he already has a team from accountancy firm KPMG, Wessex Water and the former MD of Elizabeth Shaw Malachy McReynolds "working together and looking much more fundamentally at budgeting for the future". And, at this stage, they're doing it for nothing.
"And that has been such an enlightening and encouraging aspect of this role – that I've been getting so much voluntary assistance from people. Not just from the business community but from other communities of interest. And that's been brilliant."
And that radical thinking and rebuilding will find its way in to all of George's priority issues. On dealing with the shortage of primary places, something he calls an "educational must", for example, he promises "interesting proposals" including the conversion of industrial buildings in to schools.
He also knows that the city's transport woes need a similarly radical approach – particularly around public transport. And he admits that means him being able to get "much more" from bus operator First than any of the political city leaders who have preceded him. "I'm not making any promises. I've got more to learn on how the bus fares are calculated. The best way to get bus fares down is to get more people on the buses. And the best way to get more people on the buses is to get bus fares down. If we're not careful, we will keep going around like that forever. Someone has to lay an egg. I will be looking at both carrot and stick ways of getting more people on to buses. It's essential."
So what sticks can Bristol's already put-upon motorists expect to be hit with? "I'll be looking at extending the residents' parking scheme which, where it's occurred, has had huge support once it's in. Like the congestion charge in London, that would help with public transport in Bristol."
So, as he's brought it up, would he consider a congestion charge in Bristol? "It's not something that I've got into yet but I wouldn't rule it out. I would base a decision on whether or not it was practical. I don't rule it out but I'm certainly not yet saying that it's on my hitlist.
"But it probably is the most effective stick to get people on to public transport. Bristol has these small surges of transport problems, particularly in the evenings but also in the mornings. And I think we would need a cleverer congestion charge than London. It would have to be time-based. One of the most interesting examples is Singapore, where everyone has a little card in their car and it measures where you've been and the roads are priced differently in different places at different times. And they adjust to where the congestion is. I'm not saying we would do that, but I'm saying we would have to be more sophisticated. It's not on the immediate horizon but I don't rule anything out that makes this city work better as well as healthier and safer."
He says he's also completely committed to delivering an arena, and has set up a small project team with the Local Enterprise Partnership to make it happen – "I'm aiming to have an arena built and the first concert performed there within four years."
And who would you like to see on stage for that first concert? "A big Bristol act like Massive Attack. It should have a real Bristol buzz."
And, of course, a radical aspect: "The other thing I'd like to launch the arena with is circus. Bristol is potentially the European capital of circus. It's a very popular art, it's not toffee-nosed and has incredible skills involved. If you go to Nottingham Arena, you see the National Ice Centre. I would like the Bristol arena to have a circus character. We could build circus provision around it and that circus could animate the public spaces around it. It's an idea that I'm starting to have conversations with the circus community in Bristol about."
Ever the architect, it seems that George's vision for the council and the city is still on the drawing board. And he won't have the foundations in place until May at the earliest. By then, his senior team will be finalised – led by a chief operating officer on a three-year contract from what he calls "a strong business background".
But – by then – his three-and-a-half year term will be just three years.
He says the ever-present trickle of time is made easier by the people around him: "I'm less frustrated by it than I thought I might be because I feel I can get things done.
"I'm finding officers in City Hall more open to change than I expected them to be. There are some really good people here who have been waiting for decisions – true decisions rather than decisions based on next May and election time. Because we've always had decisions based on next May.
"There's an enormous amount of cynicism in this city – them and us. Why haven't they done anything for us? I want to change the mood, to make everyone feel a bit more responsible for the city themselves rather than feel that it's something that's done for them."
There is no doubt that George's optimism is infectious. But can it really change Bristol and melt Bristolians' cynical attitude – not to mention to deliver on his promises?
Only time will tell.