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The Case for abolishing Bristol’s Mayor

March 15, 2021

Bristol’s directly elected mayor is no longer needed.  The people of Bristol should be offered the chance to abolish it, via a referendum. 

The eight year innovation in city governance has side-lined and undermined seventy elected city councillors.  While the office of mayor has improved the visibility of the city’s local leader it has not really improved accountability for big decisions. It is too easy for the mayor to avoid scrutiny and dismiss questions and criticism.  The mayor is responsible for a large range of city services, from social care to museums, from recycling to swimming pools.  This is too much to put in the hands of one individual if the mayor is not minded to share and delegate power to councillors.  The mayor is not needed as an ambassador for the city and the region as that role is now held by the regional mayor of the West of England.

A confession – I have changed my mind on this issue.  Back in 2012 I was marginally in favour of a switch from Council Leader (elected by the councillors) to a Mayor elected directly by the public.  The Coalition offered a referendum to each of the main English “core” cities, Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester, etc,  Leicester and Liverpool councillors decided to change their governance without a referendum.   The government promised to set up a “cabinet of mayors” that would provide a strong voice for England’s regional capitals in Westminster.  It was this issue that swung me behind the change.  As one of Bristol’s MPs and a previous councillor I was frustrated that the greater Bristol and Bath area (the county that used to be Avon) constantly lost out on investment, particularly on transport.  The cabinet of mayors would give regional capitals a way of influencing ministers.  But in the end, only Bristol voted for change and the cabinet of mayors never happened.

Then in 2016 the by now Conservative government decided to set up a network of regional “metro” mayors, on a par with the Mayor of London.  Since May 2017 Bristol has been part of the West of England region (a not very clear name) with its own regional mayor.  At a stroke, Bristol’s city mayor was eclipsed as the most prominent and powerful local politician.  It is the job of the regional mayor to win government investment in major infrastructure projects.  It is also the role of the regional mayor to work with UK Trade and Investment on winning commercial inward investment and growing the region’s exports.   The current city mayor does appear to enjoy flying around the world, burnishing his cherished global leader credentials.  But they are flights of fancy, without a legitimate purpose.

So my main reason for changing my mind on the need for a city mayor is the creation of the regional mayor.  As Keynes said, “when the facts change, I change my mind, what do you do?”  But I’ve also changed my mind as a result of witnessing how the city mayor has failed to improve city services and the quality of life in general, particularly in the (Covid extended) five year term of the current mayor. Successful leaders don’t just send out strong signals. They also listen to colleagues and draw strength from their experience and skills.  The current city mayor has presided over a game of musical chairs in his cabinet councillor team.  The stability of a (normally) four year term of the mayor has been undermined by constant changes in the personnel of his cabinet.  The mayor has also shunned scrutiny by “backbench” councillors, despite many of them having long experience in the running of the city.

Running a major city requires not just a strong and accountable leader but a team of talented councillors around that leader.  The range of public services is too great for any one individual to have direct oversight.  The experience of councillors from all four parties should be drawn upon to head up services or to provide scrutiny and challenge to those who are exercising power.  A directly elected mayor can choose to ignore the wisdom of others, leaving councillors effectively impotent.  A council leader accountable to all councillors has to work with their peers, involving more people in the making of decisions. Changing the system is no guarantee of high quality leadership, I was a young councillor in the 1990s when there were several dreadful council leaders. But the council leader system does at least mean an administration of some of the talents, rather than an administration operating on the whim of one mayor.

My Liberal Democrat colleagues on the council are trying to secure a referendum on the future of the city mayor.  The current city council could resolve to hold a referendum in May 2022.  In this year’s local election every Lib Dem candidate is standing on a platform of offering that referendum. If a majority of councillors don’t vote for the possibility of change then we have the option of securing the signatures of five per cent of the electorate, which would trigger a referendum.

I am fairly sure that Bristol will hold a referendum on whether to continue with the city mayoral model.  In 2012 I voted for change and when I next get the opportunity I will vote for change again, hopefully with the outcome of abolishing the post of city mayor.

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