Bristol will go to the polls next year to decide whether to scrap the mayoral system after opposition councillors had a resounding victory in City Hall.
A majority of elected members of Bristol City Council backed a motion on Tuesday night to hold a legally-binding second referendum 10 years after the first which created the post of Mayor of Bristol in 2012.
The referendum in May 2022 will offer Bristolians the choice of keeping an elected mayor or going back to the committee system of governance that was in place before George Ferguson became the city’s first directly elected mayor in November 2012.
The debate ahead of the decision to hold a referendum heard claims from opposition councillors that the role of city mayor has “absolute power” while the Labour group dismissed the motion and the debate as ‘navel gazing’.
Critics of the mayoral system say it has put too much power in the hands of one person and undermined the role of local councillors, whereas opponents of the committee system say decision-making was too slow and nothing got done.
The committee system saw full council appoint cross-party committees to make decisions on specific matters such as transport, but retain the power to set the annual budget and make other large decisions. A core executive of members of the majority party retained the right of veto.
The motion to let the people of Bristol decide whether to ditch the mayoral system and return to the committee system at the end of the second term of current mayor Marvin Rees was put forward by the Liberal Democrats with the support of the Green Party, whose national policy favours committee systems.
After an impassioned debate, the motion passed with the support of almost all opposition members, with 41 votes in favour of holding a referendum next year against 24 votes from the Labour group.
Two councillors abstained from the vote – Labour’s Zoe Goodman and Tim Wye from the Greens – while no votes were recorded for four councillors, including Paula O’Rourke, the former leader of the Green group, who did not attend the meeting.
Lib Dems claim city mayor has ‘absolute power’
Presenting the motion, Lib Dem councillor Alex Hartley pointed to “disasters” such as Bristol Energy and Bristol Arena as evidence the mayoral model was “not working as hoped”.
Bristol Energy lost nearly £50m before it was broken up and sold last year. Full council voted in favour of an arena on Temple Island in 2016, but Mr Rees overruled the decision saying it should be in Filton instead.
Councillor Hartley said: “It is fundamentally wrong that one person can overrule the will of a majority of elected councillors as happened over the arena.
“One person now effectively rules with absolute power.
“By allowing councillors to work together on cross-party committees, we can improve that governance, while allowing everyone to have a voice in a proportional and balanced way.
“It will mean that no one person will be able to single-handedly make decisions that affect all Bristolians and that the vote of all councillors will mean something.
“It is time for the people of Bristol to have the opportunity to reflect on the last ten years and now that they have the evidence, give them a chance to vote on the mayoral model, and to scrap the mayor.”
‘Reality’ not ‘promises’ will inform second referendum choice, Greens say
Green councillor Guy Poultney said low voter turnout in the 2012 referendum meant only 13 per cent of the city’s population chose the mayoral model, and they did so based on promises of greater accountability, central government funding and the ability to deliver “large-scale, long-term projects like an arena”.
“People have now seen the reality of the mayoral system,” he said.
“It’s now time to give the people of Bristol the opportunity to revisit that decision and to make a choice, not on the basis of promises, but on the basis of the evidence before their eyes.”
Labour leader dismisses referendum debate as ‘navel gazing’
But Labour group leader Steve Pearce said the motion and the debate amounted to ‘navel gazing’ at a time when the city was facing multiple crises, including a housing shortage, the Covid pandemic and the climate and ecological emergencies.
“This is the most important decade of human civilisation,” Councillorr Pearce said. “We need clear and decisive action not the bargaining of parochial interests.
“Today we’ve been reduced to talking about expending energy, time and no small amount of treasure on belly-button fluff.”
It is estimated that it will cost the council roughly £700,000 to hold next year’s referendum.
Labour councillor Amirah Cole said voters should be offered a referendum that does not offer a “binary” choice of governance models.
Tories say mayoral system the ‘weakest’ governance system
Conservative group leader Mark Weston said Councillor Pearce was wrong to “dismiss so lightly” concerns about the mayoral model.
He admitted the Tory group’s preference was to have a leader and cabinet rather than a committee system of council governance, but he said they decided to back the motion because the mayoral model was the “weakest” of the three.
“It is the system with the least amount of accountability and oversight,” he said.
But Mr Rees told opposition councillors: “We need to deliver a model that will enable us to deliver the urgency of those challenges [the city faces] right now.
“If you think that the committee system would deliver that leadership at that pace then great, make the argument, but please don’t do a disservice to those people in the city who have fled oppressive regimes and dictatorships by claiming that they’re here in Bristol.”
Business leaders call referendum a ‘distraction’
James Durie, executive director of Business West and chief executive of Bristol Chamber of Commerce and Initiative, urged councillors to reject the motion ahead of the debate, saying a referendum would be a “distraction” given all the challenges facing the city.
He said the mayoral model had provided “stable leadership” and allowed the business sector to form “strong partnerships” with the city council, whereas the committee system had often been “short term in outlook and delivery” and had held the city back.
The mayoral model could be improved by strengthening the role of councillors, he added.
What do the experts say?
In 2020, university researchers concluded that having an elected mayor had “boosted the visibility of leadership” in Bristol but that it was “harder to hold the role to account”.
The role of councillors must be strengthened in Bristol “as a priority” and residents should have a greater say in decision-making, the researchers from the University of Bristol and the University of the West of England (UWE) recommended.
The result of Tuesday’s vote is legally binding, so the referendum will take place in May of next year. The result of the referendum vote will also be binding, meaning that if the people of Bristol vote for a committee system, there will be no election to replace current mayor Marvin Rees when his second term ends in May 2024.
Last night was the second attempt by the Lib Dems to trigger a referendum to scrap the mayor after a similar motion failed to get the support of the chamber in March. Then, the Lib Dems had the backing of the Tories but failed to get the support of the Greens, who did not support the alternative governance option proposed of having a council leader and cabinet instead of an elected mayor.
Since then, the Greens have become the joint largest party on the council, following their success at local elections in May, and successfully negotiated with the Lib Dems to submit a motion that offers voters a replacement choice of system at a referendum that mirrors their national policy on local government.