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Bristol’s mayoral referendum: How did we get here?

Ten years and two mayors on, Bristol’s holding another vote on how the city should be run. But what has led us to this point?

Bristol Mayoral Referendum

Back in 2012, David Cameron urged English cities to take a “once in a generation” chance to change the way the country was run by backing directly-elected mayors. On a visit to Bristol, the then Conservative prime minister said this style of governance would create a powerful champion of each city’s best interests.

His vision struck a chord here. The city was in a period of political turmoil, with council elections rarely being won by a majority, and so whoever was in power found it difficult to get things done under a minority administration. Fingers were being pointed at the political structure: the cabinet system.

Bristol that year voted yes in a referendum on the creation of a directly-elected mayor, which was hailed by reformers as a step away from political indecision and stagnation. But it was the only city that voted for the change. Ten others who also held referendums rejected it, meaning Cameron’s vision of a ‘super cabinet’ of city mayors who would meet monthly with the prime minister could not be delivered. Bristol needed to go it alone.

Now, ten years and two mayors later, we’re back to square one: holding a referendum on whether to scrap the role in favour of a committee system, which would put more power back into the hands of councillors. So how did we get here and, whatever the result when the city goes to the polls on 5 May, what needs to happen next? 

How did we get here?

George Ferguson won a surprise victory in the 2012 mayoral election. The independent candidate left the favourite, his eventual successor, Labour’s Marvin Rees, trailing well behind in second place. Labour claimed it lost out due to a collapse in votes for the Tories and Liberal Democrats, with supporters turning to independent.

The independent mayor, with a view to drag the council out of a cycle of turmoil and party politics, installed a so-called rainbow cabinet, meaning the top team of councillors surrounding him were from the different political parties that made up the local authority at the time.

During his term, Ferguson saw Bristol take the title of 2015 European Green Capital, ahead of Brussels, Glasgow and Ljubljana, but he was later accused of a lack of transparency over how the money this brought to the city was spent. He also created controversial residents’ parking schemes, which opponents said at the time were pushed through without proper consultation, and spearheaded a project to implement 20mph zones (and later made headlines after being caught speeding).

Bristol Energy, a council-owned firm set up on Ferguson’s watch but inherited by Rees, was put up for sale in 2020 by the local authority and it was revealed that the failing project had haemorrhaged almost £50 million of taxpayers’ money. The fiasco was damning for both mayors, with the company’s dealings shrouded in mystery, raising questions about accountability, governance and transparency. 

Ferguson also tried to push through plans for an arena in the city centre, but failed to get the contract signed before Bristol’s mayoralty changed hands. The 12,000-seat venue looked set to be built in Temple Quay, until Rees launched a ‘value for money’ review into the cost of the site, before deciding it should be located on the outskirts of the city, in Filton. The decision was a controversial one, unpopular with the councillors he overruled to make it.

When Rees swept to power with a comfortable victory over Ferguson, he became the first elected mayor from black African heritage to lead a major European city. During his tenure his profile has grown nationally as well as locally, and he is now is known to be one of the most ‘visible’ local-mayors in the country.

His successful campaign for mayor in 2016 involved a promise of power-sharing, including a cross-party cabinet, and focused on tackling deprivation in the city, helping those in the private rental sector forced into paying rising rents in the poorest areas of Bristol. He accused Ferguson of representing the city’s ‘elite’.

The Labour mayor has faced accusations – most notably from the Greens and Lib Dems in opposition – of shutting out councillors from helping to shape decision making in the city, of avoiding transparency and using his mayoral power to force through or stall on plans. The arena, the city’s Clean Air Zone and the Bristol Energy fiasco are a few examples. 

Rees and his Labour colleagues counter these claims, saying the mayor has been focused on using his power to ‘get stuff done’ and bringing the city together to tackle big issues such as adult social care and transport. Earlier in April, Rees put forward a possible timeline for works on a long-awaited public transport system – a promise of his in last year’s local elections. The scheme involves plans for both overground and underground routes.

The Labour mayor won a second term last year, despite a strong surge of support for his rival, the Green Party’s Sandy Hore-Ruthven. The next day Labour lost overall control of the council, as the Greens more than doubled their seats. The results put pressure on Rees to appoint cabinet members from the opposition benches, but he resisted. 

So, why are we having another referendum?

Last December, councillors voted to hold the referendum. It was the second attempt by the city’s Lib Dems to trigger it, after a similar motion failed to get the support of the chamber last 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, with the Greens becoming the joint largest party on the council after the local elections in May, the party successfully negotiated with the Lib Dems to submit a motion that offers voters a replacement system at the referendum that mirrors their national policy on local government: the committee system.

Presenting the motion in December, Lib Dem councillor Alex Hartley pointed to the Bristol Energy disaster and the Bristol Arena as evidence the mayoral model wasn’t working for the city: “It is fundamentally wrong that one person can overrule the will of a majority of elected councillors, as happened with the arena.”

He added: “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.”

If the city votes in favour of the committee system, this will come into force in 2024, which is when the next elections are held. Rees has said he won’t be running again, so if Bristolians choose to keep the mayoral system, the city will elect a new mayor in 2024. Whichever system is successful at the polls, it will last from May 2024 for 10 years unless there is a change in the law by the government.

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