06 January 2011

I am visiting each of the 12 largest provincial English cities proposed to have elected mayors. Yesterday I visited Bristol, which has seen seven council leaders in eight years. Does the city want its own Boris?

Bristol City Council has had seven changes of leader in eight years.  Yet another change of leader could be in the offing after next May's elections.

But even if the current administration – run by the Lib Dems – continues after May, no-one is sure whether the current council leader will be challenged successfully for the job within her own party group of councillors  after the May elections, as happened a few years ago before she regained the leadership in a later vote.

The views in Bristol

Andrew Adonis talks to the media in BristolVirtually everyone I spoke to in Bristol today thought this was no way to run a great city, and that the city suffered from lack of stable, strategic leadership. There was strong support for an elected mayor from all the business, education and media leaders that I met.

All of them rattled off a list of major challenges facing the city, where a "mayor with a mission" could make a big difference:

  • inadequate transport links
  • seriously underperforming state schools
  • a shortage of housing to serve Bristol’s thriving economy
  • chronic unemployment and poverty in many of the council estates in the south of the city.

Bristol's main evening paper is also behind the idea, calling an elected mayor "Bristol's answer to London mayor Boris Johnson."

Among political leaders on the council, views were more mixed. Both Helen Holland, the Labour leader, and Geoff Gollop, the Tory leader, were keeping an open mind as the public debate on the mayoral proposal starts in the run-up to the May 2012 referendum.

But neither of them defended the topsy-turvy status quo, and both saw potential advantages from a mayor in terms of strength and continuity of political leadership for the city.

Avon not calling

The proposed mayor would be for the City of Bristol.  Some of Bristol’s challenges, particularly transport and housing, concern the wider travel-to-work region – dubbed by Eric Thomas, vice-chancellor of Bristol University, as CUBA ("the county that used to be called Avon" – the single metropolitan authority which once covered the whole Greater Bristol region, plus Bath and parts of Somerset and Gloucestershire.)

There was little support for re-inventing Avon, so an elected mayor would need to tackle these issues by improving on existing collaboration and co-ordination.

He or she could also make a difference by banging Bristol's drum louder in Whitehall – which wouldn't be hard, since there was general agreement that the city punches well below its weight in the corridors of national power.

My verdict so far

So, my verdict from the first of my visits to the 12 cities proposed for elected mayors?

The status quo has few defenders, in Bristol at least. A mayor, if they are any good, could make a real difference, not least by providing greater stability and continuity of leadership.

But mayors alone are not a silver bullet, and to be successful they will need to form strong partnerships well beyond their city boundaries, and with the private and voluntary sectors within and beyond the city.

It will be fascinating to see if these lessons hold true as I continue my tour. I'd be very interested to hear your feedback below, or via Twitter (hashtag #electedmayors).


I agree in principle with Lord Andrew Adonis, but in my view there is a need for his work and research around elected Mayors and accountability to be broadened beyond talking to politicians and business people. With all the discussions and developments around a Big Society there is a need for discussion with grass roots organisations including local Older Peoples Forums and the disabled (Not National Organisations run by paid professionals).

Vulnerable members of our society are frequently the butt of cuts and changes in services, they often know from past and present experiences what mistakes are made through lack of consultation. Many older people as Andrew will be able to identify, have vast personal knowledge of Local Government and Government accountability, many having served in the public sector as past Mayors, Councillors or staff.

No longer tied by political ambition or personal gain their views and experience could be invaluable before any referenda are called. I personally believe elected mayors could bring about considerable improvements and cut through political dogma, but a number of safeguards need to be in place.

In Bristol one of the main problems for governance is not necessarily leadership, rather the local electoral system of holding elections almost every year. This leads to political instability and a tendency for parochial rather than strategic decision making. A mayor may help, but so would longer periods between elections.

Any West of England partnership working to ever work would need a statutory basis and financial support. Voluntary joint working will inevitably achieve very little as competing unitary authority interests always lead to the lowest common denominator. One suggestion would be to extend Bristol's administrative boundaries to encompass the built up area of Bristol.

I think a Mayor of Bristol is a good idea. Only  if they are the right person for the job and have the power to  make fast and correct decisions. They need to look at the bigger picture and the future of our great city.

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