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Not enough info for public ahead of mayoral referendum, campaigners say

At a debate co-hosted by the Cable, panellists discussed the pros and cons of the mayoral model, representation and how to overcome low engagement with local politics.

Photo: Aphra Evans

Bristol Mayoral Referendum

Politicians campaigning to scrap Bristol’s mayor have admitted the public doesn’t have enough information ahead of next week’s referendum, and criticised the council for not distributing enough impartial resources. 

Green councillor Carla Denyer, who is also the national party’s co-leader, and former Lib Dem MP Stephen Williams said they weren’t comfortable with how well Bristolians have been informed about the vote, in part because the council hasn’t delivered leaflets with polling cards. 

Next week on 5 May, Bristol will vote to keep the directly elected mayor or replace it with a committee system where local councillors have more power. Many readers have said they don’t feel well-informed, which is why we’ve produced this one-minute explainer video and a more in-depth guide to help people feel less confused before casting their ballots. 

Denyer and Williams were joined by Labour councillor for Eastvillle Marley Bennett and CEO of the Trinity Centre Emma Harvey, who debated whether Bristol should scrap the mayor at next week’s vote, and if we should even be voting in the first place. The panel debate at City Academy on Thursday evening was organised by the Cable, with Bristol Ideas, Eastside Community Trust. Questions were submitted by Cable readers and local residents. 

‘Nobody has a monopoly on good ideas’

Carla Denyer and Marley Bennett

Councillor Bennett argued in favour of keeping the mayoral system and questioned why we’re having this referendum now, while people have to contend with big issues like the cost of living crisis. He said having a mayor who is accountable to the people of Bristol because they have voted them in is better than a council leader under a committee system being accountable to councillors. 

“I think having a mayor has delivered many positive things for Bristol, in terms of achieving things and making decisions, as opposed to a committee system that leads to deadlock, indecision and delays. 

“You only need to look at Marvin Rees’s response to an incident with international reverberations – the pulling down of Colston statue – how he responded to that so effectively and was able to convey what so many in the city were feeling was only possible because he had that mandate from the city as a whole.”

Councillor Denyer, who has been campaigning along with other Greens for the committee system, said: “No one party has a monopoly on good ideas.”

“The more diverse the lived experience of the people in the room, the more likely we are to make policy decisions that are good for everyone. It’s not just diversity in background, but also political outlook. 

“It’s just better democracy. The idea that just one person can represent the views of the 466,000 people who live in Bristol is plainly ridiculous,” she said.

“With a committee system, 70 councillors have a seat at the table where decisions are made. You have a far better chance that your views are in there and the decisions made reflect the needs and wants of all bristolians.

“In contrast, Bristol’s current mayoral system gives just one person almost total control. This model works for those who have the mayor’s ear but not for anyone else. 

‘We’re all aware of the consequences of poorly executed referendums’

Emma Harvey

Emma Harvey, the only non-politician on the panel, spoke passionately about how sceptical she felt about who was able to engage with the referendum. 

“I’ve worked in the community and voluntary sector in Bristol since 2007 so I’m super passionate about democracy and people having their say, and particularly about representation. That’s why I feel this referendum is problematic because it hasn’t enabled representation and it hasn’t enabled sufficient time for communities of diverse needs and interests to get involved, educated and informed about the choice they’re being asked to make in a week’s time. 

“This audience isn’t representative and I think this is indicative of the fact that we’ve been asked to make a very snap decision about something and the message just hasn’t got out,” she said.

“I’m here speaking up for the communities of Bristol who are busy worrying about their gas bills, what school they’re going to send their kids to, why am I being asked to make this decision in a week’s time when I’m not sure what the consequences are going to be. We’re all aware of the consequences of poorly executed referendums, as we’ve seen with the Brexit referendum, which we are still living with now. 

Stephen Williams

Stephen Williams, a  former Lib Dem MP for Bristol West who also used to serve as a local councillor, tried to counter the commonly used argument that before the mayoral system, Bristol’s progress was stalled by political instability and stalemates. 

“I’ve read a lot of articles over the last few weeks about Bristol used to be before we had a mayor and you’d swear it was some industrial wasteland where nothing positive had happened at all. 

He listed positive changes made under the committee system: reuniting the Cathedral with College Green, removing the road that used to run through Queens square, park and ride sites, and the building of the harbourside.

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“There is nothing to be afraid of having a modern committee system, it’s not going backwards, it’s doing something that used to work in the past and doing it in a different way. 

“To anyone who says the committees are dreadful, poor bodies for decision making, total anarchy, everyone faffs about and there’s no decisions, how do you think the country is run? 

“Our country is run by committees, the city used to be run by committees, and most of the things we value in Bristol were delivered by councillors working together on committees. Don’t be afraid of change. 

Audience member Hemlata Pant asks a questions about young people

Members of the audience asked about the role of the mayor in representing the city on the global stage, how parties would work together under the committee system and how young people can be more involved in politics and local democracy. 

To listen to the recording of the debate, listen back on BCFM at 6pm on Friday, and then listen on demand afterwards. 

Read our explainers and listen to special editions of Bristol Unpacked podcast with campaigners on both sides ahead of casting your vote on 5 May.

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