Why vote for a Liberal Democrat Mayor and Council in Bristol?
The starting gun has been fired for the race to become Bristol’s second directly elected Mayor and to fill 70 places for councillors. It’s the first time since 1999 that all of Bristol’s councillors are being elected at the same time. We will have to wait until 2020 before we go to the polls again so these elections are really important for the future direction of the city.
Most but not all of the city council’s powers lie in the hands of the Mayor. He or she is in charge of social services, the council’s biggest responsibility and the service that swallows up most of the budget. Building on the new Better Care Fund and partnership working between social care and the NHS will be a huge challenge for the next Mayor as we cope with an aging society. The Mayor also sets the council’s policy on culture and leisure, waste disposal and has limited powers over transport and housing. He proposes the council’s budget and hence the level of council tax but the budget has to be passed by a majority of the councillors. The councillors also determine planning applications and grant drink and entertainment licences. While the Mayor acts as a figurehead and ambassador for the whole city the councillors act as local champions for the 34 wards that make up the city.
So most of the power is now in the hands of the Mayor, which makes the character and beliefs of that person rather significant. A city leader certainly needs to be someone who is prepared to make tough decisions. The Mayor also needs to be a good communicator, getting his message across to Bristolians and also giving the best impression of the city to the rest of the world. But a good communicator listens as well as broadcasts. Tough decisions are more likely to be accepted if they are explained patiently and arrived at after a period of genuine consultation. That’s why I think the calm, deliberative style of Kay Barnard is better suited to the role of Mayor of Bristol than the shouty, flinty, irascible and brook no criticism style of Mayor Ferguson.
A strong Mayor is a better Mayor if she faces tough scrutiny. That’s where the calibre of councillors comes in, as it falls to them to scrutinise the activities of the Mayor and the members of the cabinet of assistant mayors. They are also able to spend money on local priorities through the neighbourhood partnerships. Liberal Democrat councillors have reputations for working hard for their wards throughout the year and their whole term of office. Quite often, councillors from Labour and the Conservatives pop up when there’s an election on but are invisible in between.
Kay Barnard and the full slate of 70 Liberal Democrat candidates have published a manifesto setting out how they would run Bristol over the next four years. It’s summarised as “Six to Fix”:
1 Public transport
The Mayor will work with neighbouring authorities to negotiate with the government for more powers over buses in the Bristol and Bath cities region. Like Transport for London, or buses in Greater Manchester, this will enable better planning of routes, regulation of fares and the introduction of cashless payment system. This would speed up bus journeys and reduce congestion on the roads. The Lib Dems also want more segregated cycle lanes and will expand the network of bus and train park and rides. Mayor Kay Barnard would also review existing resident parking schemes, in particular excessive yellow line restrictions. There would also be parking concessions in other parts of the city for residents who have paid for a permit.
2 A more sustainable Bristol
When the Liberal Democrats ran the council for most of the period from 2005 to 2012 Bristol’s recycling rate shot up and at about 50% was among the best urban records in the country. In the last few years it has dipped. The Lib Dems would set a target of 70% of the city’s waste to be recycled by 2020. We would also seek to reduce traffic pollution in the city centre and pedestrianise more of the old city. The surplus from the city energy company would be invested in home energy efficiency, reducing the carbon footprint of Bristol’s houses. Bristol has a large number of parks and open spaces. They are great for recreation, mental health and are also a haven for wildlife. We would find new sources of revenue to invest in their future.
3 Make council tax fairer
Council tax is an unfair, regressive property tax. A Liberal Democrat Mayor would seek devolution of council tax policy from central government so that there could be more relief for poorer households and higher bands for those with the most expensive properties. We would also want to charge double council tax on long term empty houses, at the moment we can charge 150%.
4 Transparency and accountability
A Lib Dem Mayor would introduce a “transparency revolution” to the council, opening up more details about finances and contracts. We will seek more powers from central government over health and housing. A Lib Dem Mayor would be more consensual and would disperse power away from City Hall to Bristol’s many distinct neighbourhoods.
5 Make Bristol affordable and inclusive
We would bring forward housing development on brownfield sites within the city. We would make sure that the homeless and also refugees get swift and easy to access advice and support. The Mayor would work the Avon and Somerset Police Commissioner to implement a local version of the Liberal Democrat national policy of legalising regulated sales of cannabis.
6 Make Bristol prosperous and vibrant
A Lib Dem Mayor would lead a bid for Bristol to be European Cultural Capital for the next available award, in 2023. We would seek the power to charge a nightly levy on hotel rooms, with the proceeds reinvested in culture and boosting tourism. We would work with the city’s colleges and small and medium enterprises to expand the number of apprentice places.
The above is more than a wish list. It is a credible series of proposals that build on the Liberal Democrats’ record of running Bristol for more years than any other party this century. The party can also draw on the experience of Liberal Democrats in running other major cities such as Cardiff, Liverpool, Newcastle, Portsmouth and Sheffield.
Finally, this is an odd period of elections for me. I first ran for office in 1992 and since then I have always been a candidate or the incumbent councillor or MP. This year I am helping a great Liberal Democrat team in Bristol, many of them fighting their first election. I’m confident that our electoral fortunes will improve in 2016 after a difficult time when we were in national government. It’s all too easy for people to decry party politics and politicians. But without them we wouldn’t have a democratic choice of ideas and a range of people to deliver them. Come rain or shine, in good times and bad for us politically, Liberal Democrats will be out delivering our leaflets and knocking on doors to talk to people. The Bristol team deserve great success.
You can read the Bristol Liberal Democrat Manifesto, with a summary of the transformation in the city when we led the administration, here http://www.bristollibdems.org/sixtofix
You can find your local candidates here. Most wards elect two councillors, some elect one or three. Everyone will have a first and second preference vote for the Bristol Mayor and also for the Avon and Somerset Police and Crime Commissioner, where the Lib Dem candidate is Paul Crossley. http://www.bristollibdems.org/2016_council_candidates