Bristol’s home of in-depth journalism
Powered by 2,000+ members
The Bristol Cable

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

Tessa Coombes

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.

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

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.

Tell your friends...

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.

Refer a friend
Grow free media
Get free stuff
find out how>>
Full council debated the issue and councillors from all parties urged the mayor to phase in the scheme more gradually. Yet Mayor Ferguson stuck to his decision to implement the schemes across the city, planning to roll out 18 schemes in 18 months on the basis that amendments could be made later and that initial opposition would die down once the benefits became clear.

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.

From edition 17, OUT NOW!

front cover of the edition 17Read more from this edition.

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.

Support the journalism Bristol needs.

Thanks to the 2,000+ members who support the Cable, our in-depth journalism is free for everyone. Together, we empower readers with independent and investigative local reporting. Join us and be a part of Bristol’s reader-owned media cooperative.

Join the Cable

Comments

    Report a comment
    Comments are moderated according to our Comment Policy

  • Nick Plant says:

    Tessa makes the assertion in this otherwise helpful article than Rees has a “more collaborative approach” than Ferguson did. This is not in line with evidence though: for example, as an independent George retained a rainbow cabinet of all the parties whereas Rees sacked everyone but his Labour stooges from his, and even overturns their decisions to get his own way. Not very collaborative!

  • Graham Livings says:

    What a ‘nonsense’ the so called SW Metro ‘mayoralty’ consisting of Bristol/B & N E Somerset/South Gloucestershire a ‘neutering’ of Bristol! What Mayor Rees shews a complete ignorance, is that the ‘arena’ project is of concern to those of us in Mid Somerset; many commuting daily to Bath & Bristol for employment as are our ‘leisure’ pursuits. We’ve not been consulted!
    In the event Temple Meads the obvious solution.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

City Reports

Council approves major new development plans in Lawrence Hill

Reports

£17 million could be wiped off value of Bristol Energy

Fight For Fair Air Banner Home Page

Watch: Lessons from lockdown – how can Bristol battle air pollution?

Reports

£37.7 million later: Council announces sale of debt-ridden Bristol Energy

Coronavirus In Bristol Reports Scrutinising Institutions

Council will have to make spending cuts, as cost of Covid-19 passes £100 million

Reports

‘More work to do’ on institutional racism at Bristol City Council

In Bristol

The essential round-up

Sent to your inbox every Friday