Cllr Mark Weston is the Leader of the Conservative Group on Bristol City Council.
A referendum held in Bristol on 3rd May 2012 returned a vote in favour of adopting the Mayor form of governance in place of the Leader and Cabinet option. It was a run close run thing (41,032 for with 35,880 against) on a low turnout (24 per cent). Across the country, there was a widespread rejection of the idea. In fact, the City of Bristol was the only one of ten major cities in England also holding referenda on the same day to back this change.
Locally, the Conservative Group campaigned strongly for making the switch, despite some internal opposition against what was essentially national party policy. The deciding factor in our internal debates were the failings of the existing political leadership in our city, arising from having to hold elections-in-thirds over a four-year cycle.
In Bristol, throughout the noughties, the traditional structure had produced a series of unstable, minority administrations, or Parties with vulnerable majorities. This not only resulted in a high level of churn; it effectively stymied important strategic decision-making, as politicians diverted their energy towards either fighting, or preparing, to fight the next election. This was proving to be resource sapping, as well as confusing for the electorate.
The advantages and disadvantages of directly elected Mayors were well-known and fully debated at the time. The main positives being:
- This would introduce stability in office through fixed four year terms (no need to worry about annual leadership elections)
- It provided a city-wide democratic mandate
- Post holders will have a higher profile and engage with more people
- Lead to a reduction of political in-fighting as more Parties could become part of the Executive/Cabinet
- Result in substantial financial savings by reducing not only the number of councillors needed to run the city but also see the abolition of the most expensive senior bureaucratic tier of Chief Executive.
Against these ascribed benefits was set the case that
- Councillors – especially backbench members – would lose influence and status within the organisation.
- There was always the risk of mavericks getting elected who could make disastrous decisions for the city
- Too much power would be invested in an individual politician over whom there was little to no checks and balances (admittedly a deliberate design feature to encourage dynamism)
- An increased scope for nepotism and cronyism in appointments or favouring pet political projects
- The danger of actually creating another level of control which ends up costing taxpayers even more for little tangible benefit.
Be that as it may, on 15th November 2012, as a result of the referendum, Bristolians ultimately chose an Independent, George Ferguson, to be their first elected Mayor by 37,353 votes to Labour’s Marvin Rees on 31,259 (on a 28% turnout).
Ferguson maintained a largely politically-mixed Cabinet right up to the end, but eventually excluded one Party (Lib Dems) entirely from his executive and disposed of other individuals who differed with him over policy. It is also true to say that incumbents, as the result of events and political pressure, seem to quickly become much less collegiate and far more defensive in their dealings with opposition Parties.
Tables were turned on Ferguson in 2016 when he lost his campaign for re-election to our current Rees. A nascent Independents’ movement had stalled in Bristol. Rees won by 56,729 votes to 32,375 on quite a high turnout (45 per cent). This defeat was due as much to Ferguson’s unpopularity following some controversial and divisive decisions taken over the imposition of RPZs, the introduction of 20mph speed limits across most of the road network, and costly, largely superficial, Green Capital projects.
However, another important element in Rees’s victory was the fact that following a Boundary Commission review in 2015, the city had now moved to holding all-out elections (every ward seat) to coincide with the Mayoral electoral cycle. This enabled Labour to maximise its vote against a sitting marmite Mayor.
Well, since then, the weaknesses of this elected office have become ever more apparent. Rees started off by honouring his manifesto pledge to share decision-making with a cross-Party Cabinet. But, after some early skirmishes, this commitment was ditched entirely by November 2017, when we saw tribal loyalties reassert and excuses confected to justify Labour ending such collaborative working.
However, this is not the deepest flaw of this governance model – its real flaw is a complete lack of checks and balances on the executive powers of the Mayor. Experience has shown that without counterbalance, this is a profoundly undemocratic position. The current post-holder has been damaged by controversial severance payments made to two departing Chief Executives (a £200,000 package for the first and a non-contractual payment of £98,000 to the second). So no financial savings made here. The cost and size of the Mayor’s political office has grown just as valued frontline services have been cut.
Rees has favoured constitutional gerrymandering, and used his slim majority of councillors to ram it though, which minimises scrutiny and limits opportunities to challenge executive power. There is a growing tendency to create strategic management boards without political opposition representation, scrutiny, or input. Moreover, one of his most contentious decisions – taken against a majority view of elected members – has seen the agreed location of a long-planned indoor arena unilaterally moved from its original site to the outskirts of the city. Such political hegemony is almost without parallel or precedent.
Besides, the political landscape has shifted considerably since 2012, with the creation of City Deals and Regional Mayors. Since February 2017, we have had a West of England Combined Authority headed by Metro Mayor Tim Bowles, who is required to work cooperatively with the leaders of Bath and North East Somerset, South Gloucestershire County Council, and Bristol. This approach, involving mutual respect, in strategic planning, transport infrastructure, and training matters is working very well. Arguably, it is this structure which has rendered a City Mayor superfluous. Indeed, with the latest talk around the formation of a ‘Western Powerhouse’ linking Cardiff, Bristol, and Swindon, I very much doubt the Bristol example will be something many other local authorities in this part of the country will be eager to follow.
In the Referendum of 2012, the people of Bristol voted for leadership – what they got was dictatorship. A four yearly electoral cycle of councillors can provide the stability needed to prevent continuous infighting. The Mayoral position just isn’t needed. The reality is that the Prime Minister has greater checks to her authority. It is the fig leaf of democracy, and I would advice against any other authority ever adopting this model of Government. In fact, I sincerely hope that at the earliest opportunity, 2022, that Bristol holds a new referendum, and its citizens terminate the role for good.