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Five Ways to Make Bristol More Democratic Clive Stevens

Referendum 2022
Clive Stevens

Written by Clive Stevens

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Clive Stevens was a Bristol City Councillor (Green Party) 2016-2021. He is the author of After the Revolution, Lessons from Local Government on Designing a Dynamic Democracy (Bristol: Tangent Books, 2020).

Here Stevens reflects on what might come next and makes five proposals for democratic renewal. This article is written in a personal capacity.

The article is part of Bristol Ideas’ Referendum 2022 debate which looks at all aspects of city governance as part of ongoing work on democracy and the May 2022 referendum.

Bristol’s referendum on the mayoral system will mean the council moving to committees in 2024. I didn’t see that coming, to be honest.

Preparing for the change is clearly a job for councillors from the five parties (including Knowle Community Party), and they will need to work together and with officers – and possibly academics and others – to make sure that committees operate effectively.

Initial signs are positive: a cross-party working group is underway to design a modern committee system. The Bristol Cable reported Green Party Leader Heather Mack as saying that it was an encouraging start and representatives from different parties are agreeing on most issues.

Here, though, are five issues on which they might find it more difficult to agree. As an ex-councillor, I have added suggestions on how to improve the way committees work, all within the need for openness and transparency, and working harder and smarter.

1) The system designed needs to be robust and appropriate for Bristol council. The council doesn’t usually have a dominant party – although sometimes it does. So councillors might consider putting in place a safeguard that will protect all the good work done. Perhaps changes to the constitution should require a two-thirds majority?

2) In my time on the council (2016–2021), I witnessed some councillors unprepared for meetings. This was demoralising for other councillors and the public but understandable given that the work of scrutiny was routinely ignored. In the new system, and to be more accountable, councillors will need to work harder. They will need training for this. We should record more than just their presence at a meeting. The council does have a monitoring officer; could they monitor the effectiveness of councillors as well? And if councillors are to work harder, they should be paid more. The job is not part-time if you put real effort into it.

3) The party whips. Sometimes whipping involves telling councillors which way to vote, to present a party line and a clear message to support press releases. It also saves effort – whipping means councillors don’t need to prepare. Can this become more transparent? In Planning Committee meetings, any councillors whipped to vote one way must declare it in advance. I think this should apply to all committees. 

4) There should be better access to information, especially reports by consultants, and public contracts in their entirety including those from council-owned businesses. Councillors will be spending public money. If they are going to work harder and do a good job, they need the facts. In the past there have been many instances where councillors couldn’t see reports. Bristol Energy and Colston Hall (now Bristol Beacon) are two good examples of this.

5) Finally, do we, the voters, need to change too? Should we be looking harder at the qualities of the candidates in the 2024 election, not just at their party colour? My view: an ideal councillor would be someone not too political, with integrity, a collaborator, a team player, a listener and a hard worker. And should voters get training in what to look for? This last suggestion is probably in my dreams.

Although leadership was the main focus of the debate before the referendum, the future effectiveness of councillors is just as important. Under the mayoral system much effort was clearly ineffective, but councillors and the committee system need to be shipshape by 2024.

Find out more about Bristol Ideas’ Referendum 2022 debate. Copyright of articles remains with the authors.

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