On Friday, 2 December 2011, Bristol’s Festival of Ideas organised a day-long event bringing together prominent Bristol academics, local councillors, MPs, business and community leaders, and former and current mayors from elsewhere in England to discuss the advantages and drawbacks of adopting the mayoral model in the city. Also taking part was Lord Adonis, the Institute’s director and a supporter of directly elected mayors.
Most panellists – including Bristol MPs from all three main parties – supported having an elected mayor for Bristol. The benefits highlighted included promoting Bristol more effectively nationally and internationally, and providing greater stability in a city council which has had seven changes of leader in ten years.
Lord Adonis argued that mayors can wield greater “soft power” due to their democratic mandate and high profile. Successful mayors from large cities like Germany’s Freiburg and Brazil’s Curitiba – where mayor Jaime Lerner tackled difficult urban issues – were highlighted to defend the idea that Bristol’s potential mayor could set out a clear vision of what the city could achieve. The case was made that in Bristol, a mayor could “get things done” and overcome the deadlock on “wedge” issues that have been talked about for many years such as schooling and transport. This would be facilitated by the inherent stability attached to a four-year mandate for mayors.
Those opposed to a mayor made arguments on three grounds. First, the representativeness and democratic value of having an elected mayor was questioned. It is unlikely voters will meet the candidates personally, yet mayors have the power to close schools and potentially run the city with only a third of the council’s support, while recall powers are limited. Also, having a single individual at the helm at a time when more, not fewer, people ought to be involved in politics both in Bristol and at the UK-wide level was seen as objectionable. Second, opponents argued that councils are already constrained by the legislative framework, since central government refuses to devolve powers, and adopting the mayoral model would further weaken the council. While some asked why powers could not be devolved further down to the neighbourhood level, others accused the advocates of change of viewing elected mayors as a panacea. Finally, they pointed out that in two-thirds of the places where a referendum on the issue had occurred, the mayoral option had been rejected.
Geographical and historical issues were also raised: Bristol epitomises the paradox of a small city in a large urban area. The mayor would operate within tight city lines that are arbitrarily set on a piece of paper. No mechanism enables people outside these city limits to express support for the idea or even a desire to become part of the area. Services like transport or the police are organised on different lines – the problem of overlapping jurisdiction with regard to Police and Crime Commissioners was raised in the IfG’s recent report on the topic – and Bristol does not have its own transport authority. Several participants favoured a mayor that would cover the Greater Bristol city-region, perhaps including what panellists jokingly dubbed Bosnia – Bits Of Somerset No longer In Avon - and Cuba - Counties that Used to Be called Avon.
Those present were only too aware that, given they are involved in local politics, they are not representative of the wider Bristol citizenry. They unanimously agreed that Bristolians needed to be engaged in the debate as the referendum grows closer. This is vital to avoid low turnout. During the 2009 council elections turnout dipped below 30% in one of Bristol’s wards. Elsewhere, mayoral referenda have seen turnouts ranging between 9.8% and 64%.