The arena decision – opposed by a majority of councillors – once more raises the question of how much power an elected mayor should have.
Illustration: Louis Wood
The recent decision by the mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees, to scrap the Bristol Arena project in the city centre has once more led to calls for the post of directly elected mayor to be scrapped. It’s not the first time we’ve seen an unpopular decision call into question the mayoral system of governance that enabled the decision to be taken in the first place.
In former mayor George Ferguson’s term of office (2012-2016), there was a similar response to his controversial decision and approach to rolling out residents’ parking zones (RPZs) across the city. Both these decisions demonstrate the pros and cons of the mayoral system, and should prompt us to question how we can learn from these experiences to try to improve engagement and accountability in the decision-making process.
As a quick reminder, Bristol voted in 2012 to have a directly elected mayor because the perception was that the city needed visible, clear and accountable leadership. There was a desire for a high-profile leader who would be recognisable to the people of Bristol and could take the difficult decisions that politicians had previously shied away from.
In November 2012, George Ferguson was elected as the first mayor for Bristol and, as an independent, he brought with him a new style of leadership that fully embraced the opportunities presented by the mayoral system of governance.
At the second mayoral election in May 2016, Marvin Rees was elected as the Labour mayor, with a Labour majority on the council. We are now halfway through Mayor Rees’ term of office, which has shown a different and perhaps more collaborative approach than that previously embraced by Mayor Ferguson.
However, the same comments about arrogance, lack of engagement and lack of accountability are now being leveled at Mayor Rees, as they were at Mayor Ferguson during his term.
Is the system at fault or the way it’s being used? To unpack this let’s look at the two key decisions of the RPZs and the arena. Both caused significant controversy and were taken solely by the mayors, against the view of the majority of councillors.
Decision 1 – Rollout of RPZs
Almost immediately after he was elected, Mayor Ferguson decided to roll out RPZs across large areas of the city, despite opposition from councillors, businesses, retailers and local communities. The backlash included a 6,000-strong petition, vandalism of ticket machines, and streets in Easton and Montpelier being barricaded to prevent the introduction of the scheme.
Decision 2 – Scrapping the Bristol Arena project
The more recent decision to scrap the city centre arena was taken by Mayor Rees despite in-depth scrutiny sessions and a council debate that all came to the view that the arena should remain on Temple Island. The Scrutiny Commission spent three sessions dissecting the value for money report on the Bristol Arena, which compared the Filton and Temple Island plans, and still came to the view that Temple Island was the best place for it to be developed.
The full council debate came to the same view, with fifty councillors voting for the project and eight abstaining, a resounding majority. But just the next day the mayor took the decision to scrap the Bristol Arena project and to use Temple Island for mixed-use development instead.
The juxtaposition of the final mayoral decision, coming just one day after the full council debate on the issue, was spectacular.
What do these decisions have in common? Well the answer is they would probably never have been taken without a directly elected mayor. In the past, with annual elections and decisions needing to be supported through full council, it’s unlikely that either decision would have been endorsed. But what does this say about the pros and cons of the mayoral system?
In terms of positives, there is a clear decision-making process with one person responsible so we all know who to hold to account at the next election. It has enabled potentially difficult decisions to be taken without too much delay.
However, it’s also clear that this form of decision-making leaves councillors and communities feeling like they haven’t been listened to, and that their voice is often ignored. It brings into question the very role of local councillors and the role of the scrutiny process. It also raises questions about whether there is too much power concentrated in the hands of one person, with others excluded from the process.
More work is needed to ensure collaboration and partnership working becomes central to the mayoral decision-making process. We need to make sure that communities and councillors have an opportunity to participate in, and seek to influence, mayors’ decisions.
Tessa Coombes is a town planner, PhD researcher in Public Policy at the University of Bristol, and an ex-councillor for Southville and Knowle.