Our intrepid council correspondent, Sid Ryan, sits through the first meeting of the Marvin Rees administration so you don’t have to.
It’s a new dawn in Bristol. A red one. For the new Labour administration, the board is set and the players are making their opening moves. And for me, as your self-appointed city hall commentator, I’ll be sitting on the sidelines trying to separate the truth from the spin and work out what the grand strategy is. That, and making a lot of bad one-liners.
This week the main event was the Full Council meeting, the first since the elections. It’s hard not to be a little impressed going to these things, if only for the setting. The town hall is huge. You could fit the House of Commons in twice over easily and it’s pretty much the same layout, all plush carpets, gilt moulding, polished wood and red leather.
You’ve got to appreciate the fine democratic tradition of honest local people standing up to represent their community and trying to make Bristol a better place. The earnest speeches about improving our common lot, building the world we need to see. The reverence to the artifacts of power, the swords, rods, robes, and special hats. It was making me a little misty-eyed. Or maybe I was moved to tears of boredom?
To reiterate the title: Four. Effing. Hours. That right there is the basic dynamic of the council. It’s all very important, but my god is it dull.
To be perfectly fair, if I was looking for excitement I picked the wrong day to start – the first meeting of the council is pretty much all procedure. First on the agenda was getting in the new Lord Mayor – not to be confused with the mayor elect, Marvin Rees – and getting rid of the old one. Lord Mayor is a ceremonial position and the mayor-ing process is basically a lot of speeches of thanks.
“It was making me a little misty-eyed… Or maybe that was tears of boredom.”
There was an adorable exchange between Jeff Lovell (L) the incoming Lord Mayor and ‘very proud lad from the South of the City’ and ‘Jacko’, that’s Councillor Chris Jackson (L) to you and me. Cllr Jackson gave a lovely speech to his friend and colleague, and, on getting some thanks in return from Lovell, he threw out a chirpy, Bristolian-accented ‘Cheers, mate!’.
Council is nice like that. They go nuts for the rules and procedures, but they’re all normal people and no-one is going to get too annoyed about a joke here and there or Cllr Mark Weston going off on a weird tangent about the political insights that can strike while doing a little pressure washing with a cider in-hand, which he did.
But then you also have quite touching moments, Cllr Asher Craig (L) gave tribute to her friend and mentor, Miss Carmen Beckford, one of the ‘seven saints of St Pauls’ and elder stateswoman of Bristol who passed away last month. Or when Cllr Cleo Lake (G) took the time to read a poem and bring a little life to the Chamber.
There was even a mini-drama. In the half-way break a kerfuffle broke out. Paul Saville, who you might remember from the Mayoral ballot papers, got escorted out of the hall by security. He says he wasn’t doing anything offensive, just chatting to some of the members about housing and the Avonmouth eviction, but the security guards were a little worried about him eating the councillors’ sandwiches.
It could have ended there, but Mayor Rees and Cabinet Member for Homes, Paul Smith (L), popped outside to give him some face-time and calm things down. I’m not sure the administration are scared enough of Mr Saville and friends for the fracas to have a real impact, but in the end he got what he wanted – the Avonmouth occupiers didn’t get evicted…
The main event was a speech from Marvin Rees and the replies from other party leaders. Most of it we’d heard before, but it’s well presented. He likes to grip and push down on the edge of the lectern, a neat trick to get that shoulders-back, chest-out effect. Kudos to his media-trainer, but what makes it work is that when he talks, he seems like he means it.
The plan appears to be to release a review of council finances next week, and then to work out what to do within that envelope. We’ll have to see if the ambitions from the campaign trail translate into feasible, funded programmes.
There are a couple of specifics though: A recycling centre on Hartcliffe way, the residents parking zones and 20mph speed limits are going to be reviewed ward by ward, a price freeze on parking licenses too. There will be a Bristol Charter for Corporate Social Responsibility (whatever that’ll look like), a drive to get Bristol employers to pay a living wage and the first Mayoral commission is going to look at the gender and race pay-gap. Oh, and houses, houses and more houses.
The word of the day was collaboration. Hard to tell where the strategy comes in here, whether it’s an ideological break from the previous Mayor, George Ferguson, a little pre-emptive blame sharing should things not go as plan, or maybe it’s totally genuine? Obviously this spiel went down well with the other parties. They could have spent another five years out in the wilderness, doing a lot of shouting but getting nowhere near the levers of power.
“The Greens are giving notice that they’ll not hesitate to give Marvin a kicking if, or maybe when, he fails to deliver on his promises.”
To try and sum up everyone’s position on the new administration: the Conservatives want rail, road and respect, and seem happy to cut a few deals to get them. They’ve got a lot of power over the administration through the committee structures anyway, so it’s not like they’ll struggle to get most of their agenda through.
The Greens were more reserved, the general tone being: “We wish you luck, and I think you’re going to need it.” The main worry is housing. Turns out that the Government have made life quite difficult for councils wanting to build affordable homes. The Greens are giving notice that they’ll not hesitate to give Marvin a kicking if, or maybe when, he fails to deliver on his promises. A little payback for Labour seizing housing as their political territory and smashing the Greens apart with it during the election.
As for the Lib Dems, they seemed pretty happy. They mentioned a few specifics, libraries, recycling and the Bristol Arena, and the upcoming metro-mayor referendum. The greater concern than what the council is doing is how it’s doing it. The Lib Dems just want to be kept in the loop and be able to raise concerns without being accused of playing politics.
After three and a half hours of speeches the energy of the room was at its lowest. Councillors’ discipline had been good so far, but there was a lot more fiddling around on their regulation iPads. Not that I’m blameless on that issue either.
A bit of a shame, because the Youth Council presented their manifesto towards the end and it was actually quite practical and quietly radical. It got taken seriously by the Mayor at least, not that surprising considering that the chairperson, Sophie Giltinan, was more eloquent than most of the ‘real’ councillors.
The final business of the day were a few procedural changes to the constitution. I thought I might be onto a scorcher, noticing that they’re removing the power for any two members of a scrutiny committee to call for a review, leaving the decision solely in the hands of the chairperson or the civil servant responsible – but no-one I talked to seemed bothered by it. So it’s either not a power-grab, or just a very secret one!
Then, all of a sudden, with an ‘aye’, ‘aye’, ‘aye’, and all the Scrutiny Committee chairs were appointed. The Conservatives get the big one, Oversight and Scrutiny, and the ‘Business Change and Resources’ committee. Greens get ‘Place’, Lib Dems get ‘Neighbourhoods’ and Labour get ‘People’. More on that when we work out exactly what the Committees are going to be doing…
And that was that. All finished. Thank god.