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Is It Too Late to Create a Mayoral Model That Works for Bristol? 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).

This 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 forthcoming May 2022 referendum.

In May, Bristolians get to vote in a referendum about whether the council should still be run by a mayor or go back 20 years (to the future) and have a councillor committee system.

I prefer a mayoral system, but to get my vote it must be more open with checks and balances. There are many possible improvements to the mayoral leadership model to make the current system more democratic. Some may view these ‘extras’ as unnecessary. But I believe that principles of democratic decision making are vital. I fought for these when I was a councillor – including five years as Vice Chair of the council’s audit committee – but things seemed to get worse rather than better.

Others are asking for improvements too, including Paul Smith, former cabinet member for housing, in the Cable interview he did on stepping down from the council. More recently, in a Bristol 24/7 debate, Jaya Chakrabarti, President of the Bristol Chamber of Commerce and Initiative and one of business’ big hitters, said, ‘make the mayoral model fit for purpose. . . we need a leader for decision making. . . and an even better [mayoral] model’. Labour Councillor Nicola Beech, a current Cabinet Member, added, ‘I agree’.

What checks and balances are needed? There are two: first, more openness and better scrutiny and, second, boundaries to the mayor’s power.

Scrutiny is important in a democracy. Wide study, discussion and challenge leads to better decision making. More openness improves analysis and reduces chances of corruption. The press and public learn more, and there’s an informed vote.

Fighting the lack of openness in Bristol is what did me in. I found much information was kept from councillors by officers. The external auditor criticised the regime on this too, though their wording was more subtle. They also said: ‘we are not aware of any mayoral authorities where we are satisfied that scrutiny is operating effectively’. (Source)

There were also restrictions on time. Reports came out a few days before the mayor’s cabinet meetings. There was no time for consideration. And the public and other councillors were bypassed. Officer explanations, if they occurred at all, happened the day before cabinet, too late to file questions and statements. Cabinet meetings just confirmed decisions and there was little real debate.

A better system would involve openness and early councillor scrutiny. UWE Emeritus Professor Robin Hambleton, who helped design the current approach to policy development (the One City Plan), said, ‘the role of city councillors can. . . be strengthened’. (Source)

Yes, and if it was, it would improve decision making.

On the second point, limits to mayoral power need Secretary of State approval. Is there a chance? Something is wrong, nationally. Perhaps national government would welcome a better model, one bringing both clear accountability and collaborative working. But would they hurry it through?

Bristol was close to a better model. On 7 September 2021, a full council motion was published calling for a governance review (see pages 22-24 of the document). It wasn’t debated. Green Councillor Paula O’Rourke wrote the motion. I asked her about a hybrid system:

‘I wanted expert input and a considered debate so councillors could take an informed decision. We might have then taken the referendum vote a year later or, perhaps, we would have pursued a hybrid system, one combining the benefits of a city mayor with better checks and balances. Currently there is too much power vested in the mayor, he can act without reference to councillors when he wants to. I could have supported a more consensual, hybrid approach. For example, resolutions from full council with a two-thirds majority being binding. Another balance needed is the elected mayor to have a cross-party cabinet.’

O’Rourke continues:

‘I am concerned that this referendum asks citizens to make a choice without having the full facts on the advantages and disadvantages of each system. We don’t want it to be like Brexit; there is no point in just wanting to take back control. We need to fully understand what would be the best form of governance for the city.’

Is O’Rourke right: a hybrid mayoral system with more openness, better scrutiny, consensual decision making and a better balance between councillors and mayor? Although some think this is what Bristol needs, voters are not currently being offered this choice. In December, councillors jumped straight to a referendum.

Business leaders seem to be shouting loud to keep the mayor. They want a visible leader who can take quick decisions. I turn to Jaya Chakrabarti and ask, what types of decision need to be made quickly by a mayor? After all, Bristol’s council should be democratic, it’s not a business. Even the president of the USA has to refer some decisions back to Congress for approval.

Jaya’s reply will follow on Monday. If her answer fits with a democratic approach, then it would be true progress. And this is something the current mayor – and all those advocating for the mayoral model to be retained – need to answer. I wonder if they are listening.

Listen to a recording of the article

Clive Stevens discusses his book, After the Revolution, at bookhaus on 28 February with former Lord Mayor and Bristol City Councillor Cleo Lake. Book a ticket here.

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

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