George Ferguson (Mayor of Bristol)

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George Ferguson
George Ferguson Mayor of Bristol.jpg
George Ferguson in 2013
Mayor of Bristol
Assumed office
19 November 2012
Preceded by Office created
Personal details
Born George Robin Paget Ferguson
(1947-03-22) 22 March 1947 (age 68)
Winchester, Hampshire, England
Political party Liberal (1970–1988)
Liberal Democrats (1988–2012)
Bristol 1st (2012–present)
Domestic partner Lavinia (separated 2000)
Children Alice, John and Corinna
Residence Southville, Bristol
Alma mater Wellington College, Berkshire
University of Bristol
Occupation Politician, former architect, businessman
Nickname(s) Red Trousers, Junket George

George Robin Paget Ferguson CBE, PPRIBA, RWA (born 22 March 1947)[1] is a British politician, former architect, entrepreneur, and the first elected Mayor of Bristol.

Ferguson was co-founder of Ferguson Mann Architects in 1979, where regeneration and historic building work formed the foundation of the practice. He was also founder of the national architectural group Acanthus.[2] He is a past president of the Royal Institute of British Architects (2003–2005)[3] where "he was noted for championing the causes of education, the environment and good urbanism".[4] He was a founding director of The Academy of Urbanism[5] and a founding member of the British sustainable transport charity Sustrans.[6] Ferguson was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 2010 New Year Honours for services to architecture, and to the community in the South West of England.[7] In November 2012, Ferguson became the first elected Mayor of Bristol. He is noted for wearing red trousers.[8] He was a member of the Society of Merchant Venturers before deciding to leave the society due to conflicts of interests when becoming Mayor of Bristol.[9]

Early life[edit]

Ferguson was born on 22 March 1947, in the city of Winchester, in Hampshire. His father’s military career took the family to Gibraltar, to the South and North of England and to Norway prior to settling in Wiltshire.[10] While in Gibraltar, Ferguson contracted infant polio, which has left him with a distinct limp.[11]


Ferguson was educated at Wellington College.[12] Ferguson read architecture at the University of Bristol from 1965 to 1971.[13] Ferguson has been awarded honorary degrees from the University of Bristol[14] and the University of the West of England.[4][15] Ferguson went to Bristol University in 1965 and, apart from one year in London, has lived in the city since.

Career in architecture[edit]

Urban renewal and environmental sustainability were central elements of Ferguson’s approach to design, exemplified by developments such as the Tobacco Factory. In 1978, Ferguson established Ferguson Mann Architects and the practice won many awards for innovative and sustainable design.[2][4][16]

In 1986, Ferguson founded Acanthus, the UK wide network of independent practices committed to excellence in design and conservation. Ferguson led the Acanthus team that contributed to the conservation plan for Foster & Partners and for Christo’s wrapping of the Reichstag in 1995.[2]

During his career, Ferguson has written and presented articles, broadcasts and lectures on planning and architectural matters and sustainability,[13] and appeared on the 2005 Channel 4 television series Demolition.[17] Ferguson fully stepped down from Ferguson Mann Architects after his election as Mayor of Bristol in order to concentrate on his new role within the city.[18] In December 2014, the Architects Registration Board investigated George Ferguson for using the protected title 'Architect' without being registered to do so under the Architects Act 1997. He admitted he had deliberately let his membership lapse and removed the term from his social media status.[19]

Regeneration in South Bristol[edit]

The Tobacco Factory during cleaning work which saw a Union Jack flag covering scaffolding

Ferguson is noted for his leading role in the regeneration of the Bedminster area of South Bristol.[20] In 1994, he bought the last remaining major building of the old Imperial Tobacco Raleigh Road estate for £200,000 to save it from demolition and turn it into an exemplar regeneration project.[21][22] The Tobacco Factory is now a mixed-use project, that includes the Tobacco Factory Theatre, bar, creative industry workspace and other creative activities that have helped kick start the regeneration of North Street.

In 2003, Ferguson bought the defunct Ashton Gate Brewery. Renamed The Bristol Beer Factory, it resumed beer brewing in 2005 using mostly locally-grown malt and hops and has won national awards including being nominated Drinks Producer of the Year in the BBC Food & Farming Awards 2011.[23]


Ferguson was one of the first three Liberal Councillors to be elected to Bristol City Council, representing Cabot Ward from 1973 to 1979.[20] He stood unsuccessfully for the Liberals in the 1983 and 1987 general elections in Bristol West, after which he ceased any active political involvement.[24]

In March 2012, Ferguson confirmed speculation that he was planning to stand as an independent candidate for Mayor of Bristol if the referendum on 3 May chose to adopt the Mayoral system.[25] Following the referendum, Ferguson resigned his membership from the Liberal Democrat party before announcing that he would stand for mayor, but explained that he had no intention to run as a party candidate: "Everyone knows that I am my own person. I'm a member of lots of things but I'm as independent as they come."[26]

Ferguson ran as an independent but registered his ‘Bristol 1st’ party to distinguish himself from other independents on the ballot paper.[27] In his campaign material, Ferguson stated “My only purpose is to make Bristol, the city I love, a better city for all. I have no political ambition beyond Bristol” and he set out his seven visions for Bristol.[28]

The election was held on 15 November 2012. On 16 November 2012, Ferguson was declared Bristol's first elected mayor, beating the second-place Labour candidate Marvin Rees by more than 6,000 votes. The election was held using supplementary vote, including second preference votes.[29] The election saw a low turnout of just 27.92% of the electorate participating.[30]

Ferguson takes a portion of his salary as Mayor in the local Bristol Pound which is easily converted back into sterling.[31][32] The salary of the Mayor of Bristol was aligned with the salary of a UK Member of Parliament in 2013,[33] and has not risen despite independent recommendations[34][35] and a 10% increase in MP's pay to £74,000.[36]

Mayor of Bristol[edit]

Ferguson was sworn in as the first directly-elected Mayor of Bristol in the Passenger Shed at Temple Meads Station on 20 November 2012. On his first day of taking office, Ferguson implemented two policies. He revoked Sunday car parking charges and announced that the ‘Council House’, the administrative seat of Bristol, would be renamed ‘City Hall'.[31]

Effectively an independent candidate, Ferguson appointed a "rainbow cabinet" comprising a deputy and five assistant mayors, drawn from all political parties.[37] He also appointed two youth mayors following a city wide election by the youth community.[38]

Public Image[edit]

T-shirt design following the 2013 instance of George Ferguson swearing at a member of the public

Ferguson is widely known for wearing red trousers.

In May 2013, George Ferguson was caught on camera using a four-letter expletive directed at a member of public, 27-year-old artist Paul Saville, at a public event in Bristol city centre. George Ferguson later accused him of stalking and refused to apologise for the insult saying he "was not sorry". The event drew local and UK national media attention from the BBC and quickly generated a series of T-shirts parodying the words he'd used.[39][40][41][42]

The following month, the leader of the Conservative group of city councillors made an official complaint to the City Director about a "foul mouthed" outburst from the mayor. In a short exchange Mr Ferguson was reported used a four-letter word several times; an incident that sparked further media interest.[43][44] During the run-up to the Mayoral Election, in September 2012, Ferguson had been forced to apologise for suggesting some ways of developing the city may be "too Irish", a derogatory term implying that they were ludicrous or illogical.[45] In his defence in January 2015 Ferguson claimed ""Occasionally I may have lost my rag with may have been once a year....but it gets repeated and repeated and that becomes my image." In the same interview Ferguson tackled public perceptions of his "dictatorial" nature and pledged to be "more consensual" if he was re-elected.[46][47]


In line with national Government austerity measures, one of Ferguson's first challenges was to cut £35 million from the 2013/14 budget and plan for a further £65 million in spending cuts over the following three years.[48] Most of the savings in the 2013/14 budget (approximately £20 million) were achieved through reductions and changes in council staffing.[48]

Over the next 12 months, the challenge to cut £65 million over three years had increased to £90 million. Again, Ferguson proposed to achieve most of the savings through staffing cuts and other efficiencies within the council (approximately £50 million). Several cuts proposed in the 2014-2017 draft budget generated feedback, such as a proposal to discontinue staff supervision at Hengrove Park.[49][50][51] Following the 2014–2017 Bristol city council budget public consultation, Ferguson and the Council removed some of the proposed changes.[52][53]

By 17 September 2015 the project cost had risen to £94m.[54] It was also revealed that the 12,000 capacity arena would be provided with not more than 45 car parking spaces.[55]

Traffic and transport[edit]

Ferguson has expressed his determination to tackle traffic congestion by trying to force a change in the city’s culture and get people out of cars and onto buses or bicycles.[56][57] On 7 January 2015, after a Bristol motorist posted a "joke" comment on social media implying that he had driven off after hitting a cyclist,[58] Mr Ferguson commented that his Tweet "has chilling echoes of 60's Deep South racism".[59] The following day, he was forced to apologise following public criticism of the comparison.[60]

Ferguson introduced ‘Make Sunday Special’, an idea borrowed from Bordeaux, one of Bristol's twin cities. On selected Sundays in the summer, some roads in the city centre are closed to motor vehicles and various entertainments or events are laid on.[31][61]

Ferguson’s plan to expand Residents Parking Zones (RPZ) across the city, in order to reduce the number of commuters driving into the city, has been highly contentious.[62][63] The plans were scaled back as a result of protests from some residents and businesses.[64] Ferguson has maintained that his RPZ proposals enjoy a high level of support from the "quiet majority".[65] However, in January 2015, the Council's own statistics revealed that over 90% of Clifton respondents in a request for feedback had objected to his plans. It was implemented after further alterations were made to the scheme.[66] The roll-out was beset by protests in several districts of the City where streets in Easton and Montpellier were barricaded to prevent the implementation.[67] The project infrastructure, ticket machines and painted lines, have also been widely vandalised costing an estimated £30,000 in repairs.[68][69]

Ferguson has proceeded with expanding 20 mph speed limits across the city, following pilots in Bedminster and east Bristol in 2010,[70] but contrary to a motion passed by the elected Council in November 2014 to limit the expansion only to those areas of Bristol that wanted them.[71] In February 2015, it transpired that Ferguson had been caught breaking the speed limit in a Bristol City Council fleet car whilst driving at 35 mph in a 30 mph area on a journey from Avonmouth along the Portway. Caught by a portable police speed camera, the Mayor apologised for breaking the law, though social media was quick to make accusations of hypocrisy based on his advocacy of lowered speed limits.[72] He was later "mocked" on the popular BBC TV show Top Gear.[73] In April 2015, Ferguson announced that the Portway, the road on which he was caught speeding, would be closed to motor vehicles on Sundays in the summer.[74]

International travel[edit]

Whilst continuing promotion of green and public transport options, Ferguson has been criticised for the number of foreign trips that he took in his role as Mayor. Concerns over the size of his carbon footprint, and the use of public funds for the trips were both concerns levelled at the mayor.[75][76][77] During a twelve-month period from January to December 2014, Ferguson and his entourage took sixteen international flights amounting to a carbon footprint of 6.5tons and George Ferguson's international travel as Bristol Mayor exceeded that of London's Mayor Boris Johnson in the same period.[78][79]

Bristol Port controversy[edit]

In March 2014, Ferguson expressed his intention to sell the freehold ownership of Avonmouth and Portbury docks which had been retained by the City Council since the leasehold was sold in 1991.[80] Controversy surrounded the sale from the beginning due to the connections between Ferguson and the Bristol Port Company's directors, through their membership of the secretive organisation The Society of Merchant Venturers.[81]

On 1 April 2014 the Mayor made the decision to make the sale based on the offered sum of £10 million. However elected councillors called-in the decision for debate citing the lack of transparency over the sale, lack of information provided by the Mayor, and a "one-sided" valuation of the 2,000 acres (810 ha) estate.[81] On 1 June 2015, Councillors debated the "flawed" and "suspicious" sale and the Mayor was told to reconsider it.[82] Ferguson didn't do this but continued with announcing the sale of the port land "with immediate effect" on a Cabinet meeting on 16 June 2015.[83]

At the same cabinet meeting, the Assistant Mayor with responsibility for property and transport, Mark Bradshaw, spoke out against the immediate sale and asked that Ferguson postpone the sale pending further information. Ferguson sacked Bradshaw from his cabinet position by email later the same evening.[84] Ferguson denied accusations that he'd sacked Bradshaw for opposing his wishes or being a threat to his hoped re-election and claimed Bradshaw had "started to use the cabinet and his position as a political stage for his own ambition".[85]

BRT, Metrobus[edit]

Metrobus, previously Bristol Rapid Transit (BRT), is a scheme developed jointly by the West of England Partnership: a partnership between Bristol City, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire Councils.[86] It was in development from 2006 and received government backing in November 2013.[87]During the Mayoral election campaign, George Ferguson pledged to cancel the proposed BRT scheme if he was elected.[88][89] When he came to office, Ferguson made minor amendments to route proposals rather than cancelling the project. In July 2013, Ferguson announced that surrounding local authorities had approved the changes he'd proposed to the route of the planned BRT2 to avoid it running through the Bristol Harbourside area. The system, renamed Metrobus, was also changed to use modern low emission vehicles which were later dropped as a cost-cutting measure.[90][91][92] However, protest groups who challenged the route, cost, and feasibility of the scheme accused Ferguson of breaking the electoral promises laid out before the election.[88]

A second challenge to Ferguson's support of the Metrobus project came when the next phase of the scheme was submitted for planning consent in March 2014[93] Objections to the planning application were raised over the proposed felling of mature trees along the whole of the length of the North Fringe to Hengrove route, to the loss of Grade 1 agricultural land at Stapleton, the damage to the setting of Grade 1 Listed Stoke Park house and the Grade 2 Registered historic designed landscape surrounding it, and the lack of public consultation over the proposals.[94] Following the approval of the scheme by the Planning authority on August 2014 work began in January 2015 causing further protest, and activists set up camp in trees that the Council were about to fell. Ferguson's support for the project remained resolute. With Bristol's status as European Green Capital in 2015, Ferguson reiterated his support for the scheme and referred to the developing protest as "a challenging situation" and claimed he had "done more than anyone to minimise the environmental effects of the Metrobus project".[95][96] Protesters attended a press event at which Ferguson was present with Government Environment Secretary Elizabeth Truss planting the 1 millionth tree of the national Big Tree Plant programme. At it, he accused the protesters of "blowing this issue out of all proportion".[96]

European Green Capital[edit]

In March 2013, Ferguson led a delegation from Bristol to Brussels to present Bristol’s bid to be European Green Capital 2015. It was announced on 14 June 2013 that Bristol had won.[97]

Green Capital Controversy[edit]

In December 2014, the proposed recipients of Bristol's Green Capital Strategic Grants were announced. Grants were awarded by a limited company, Bristol 2015 Ltd, of which George Ferguson was a director. 136 groups applied for funding, only 32 were accepted, 10 of which Bristol 2015 board members own, manage, or work for and accounted for £500,000 of the total grants made. Andrew Garrard, who'd been the second largest donor to George Ferguson's election campaign, was appointed Managing Director of Bristol 2015 Ltd. He was also a member of the same Society of Merchant Venturers from whom Ferguson had stood down from shortly after the election though continued to maintain close connections. A company called Playing Out CIC, of which Ferguson's daughter is Managing Director,[98] received £41,000 and questions were raised as to the public accountability of the limited company, conflicts of interest.[99]

In February 2014, Ferguson launched ‘TreePips’, an initiative to have every primary school child in Bristol plant a tree, resulting in 36,000 extra trees planted by 2017.[100] At the same time the City's Tree Department had its funding cut by Ferguson by £300,000 per year by 2015.[101]

Bristol arena[edit]

Ferguson made the creation of an indoor music and entertainment arena one of the central pledges of his mayoral campaign. The scheme was approved as part of Bristol City Council's budget in February 2014 and the 12,000 capacity venue near Temple Meads station was expected to open in 2017. The bulk of funding came as a loan of £53 million from the City Deal to be repaid by the retention of business rates arising from regeneration, via the West of England Local Enterprise Partnership, while the Council will loan a further £38 million to be financed by the lease to the operator.[102] The costs involved in the project spiralled from £80m when it was first proposed by Ferguson, to £92.5m by October 2015, a 16% increase in budget, and the proposed opening delayed until 2018.[103][104]

The City Deal[edit]

In March 2014, Ferguson, together with the leaders of the three surrounding authorities that form the West of England, agreed a ‘City Deal’ with Government. This allows Bristol to retain income from business rates and decide how the money should be spent. In the past, the Government has kept business rates to be distributed nationally.[105] However, in January 2015, with Bristol City Council still to sign the deal, Ferguson launched an alternative partnership for a City Region with the cities of Cardiff and Newport in Wales. Rejecting the previous partnership negotiated with the city's neighbouring Local Authorities he stated "I like to move at the pace of the fastest, not the slowest".[106]

Private life[edit]

George Ferguson is married to Lavinia. The couple separated in 2000 following a well publicised affair with a BBC Journalist, Helen Reed, although they remain married.[107] They have three grown children: Alice, John and Corrina.

Ferguson has been involved in several local charities including the Avon Youth Association, Cruse, and Starfish. He is also a trustee of the University of Bristol Union.[108]

Ferguson was appointed High Sheriff of Bristol when that office was revived in 1996 and served for one year.[109] He was also previously a board member of the think tank Demos from 2007 to 2010, a trustee of the Arnolfini Arts Centre until 2012, and a member of the controversial private group, The Society of Merchant Venturers until 2012.[108]


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