George Ferguson is a colourful character in an arena full of dour people. He oozes enthusiasm and energy. I have known George for over 20 years now and have often found myself on the same side of an argument as him. Recently we have been shoulder to shoulder on the stump arguing both for electoral reform and an elected mayor. We have even danced together at the opening of the Tobacco factory in Raleigh road, where I was then a resident.
So why am I so uneasy about rallying behind the bookies favourite for mayor? He has recently suggested that it is all about party politics. George has only resigned his membership of the Liberal Democrats after the referendum result was in. However it isn’t that, this is a job which is bigger than parties and as failed candidates for Bristol West we should probably set up a society.
My concern is that George seems to have a blind spot. Hopefully one he can address before we go to the polls. In some ways this blog is a plea for him to address this issue before votes have to be cast in November. George is a great enthusiast for Bristol, he is often right about issues on design and planning, but he doesn’t seem to be able to separate this from an enthusiasm for himself.
In the late 1990s one of the biggest issues in Bristol was the development of Canon’s Marsh, now Harbourside. George was part of one of the losing teams in a bid to develop the site, I seem to remember it was called something like little Venice because it including an extra dock for a ship near Lloyds arena. Once the winning bid was announced George joined the campaign to defeat it. He was successful and then became part of the team for the subsequent scheme which got planning permission.
George is a strong advocate, quite rightly, for mixed use developments, dare I use the phrase – ‘with active ground floor uses’. When a terrible, sub urban housing development was proposed for the inner city Elizabeth Shaw chocolate factory in Greenbank was proposed George was soon advising and supporting the campaign against it. Planning permission was refused and then lo and behold George was the architect for the developer of a new scheme. Although the scheme has been criticised by some I thought it was an attractive mixed use which would be a real boost to the area (although I was concerned by the lack of affordable housing). George has said on twitter that he was not going to benefit financially from the scheme but then did not answer any questions about whether his architectural service was free or fee. He has also branded questions relating to his interests as ‘gutter politics’ rather than addressing them.
We can see George also at the forefront of opposing the redevelopment of Ashton Gate, suggesting a mixed use scheme instead (with his firm as the architects?) and a similar position relating to the plans to redevelop the old South Bristol College site.
My concern is that George is unable to separate his passion for Bristol from his commercial interests. He has said publicly that he will resign his membership from the Society of Merchant Venturers and other memberships which might create a suggestion of a conflict of interest. For me it’s not what he is a member of but his apparent inability to see that he business model (as the Clash would say “Turning rebellion into money”) suggests that he has a blind spot in terms of such conflicts. He has so far made no clear statements (which I have seen) in relation to his business interests in the City. The potential power of the Mayor makes this a critical issue and one which I hope and I’m sure George can clear up before the vote.