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The Bristol Cable

Bristol votes to scrap its mayor in move to give councillors more power

Just 10 years after voting to bring in a directly elected mayor, the role will now be scrapped and replaced with a committee system.

Photos: David Griffiths

Bristol Mayoral Referendum

Bristol has voted in a referendum to ditch its mayor and introduce a different style of local governance that will put more power in the hands of councillors.

Some 59.3% of voters opted to get rid of the current model in favour of a committee system, 10 years and two mayors after the role was brought in.

The anti-mayor campaign, dominated by current and former councillors from the Greens, Lib Dems and Tories, was jubilant as the result was announced at about 3.30am on Friday.

Mary Page, who led the campaign, said to cheers: “It is our city, the city of Bristol belongs to all of us, not just one person, not just the mayor.

“The future is, I hope, bright,” she added. “We all promise that we are going to make the best of this and make the committee system work for all because you all deserve a seat at the table.”

Marvin Rees, Bristol’s current directly-elected mayor, speaks to journalists after the result

The turnout for Thursday’s vote was 28.6%, which is low but higher than the 24% registered at the referendum 10 years ago when the city voted to bring in the mayoral system. 

The city now has two years to work out how its new way of governing will actually work, before it comes into force at the next local elections in May 2024.

Labour mayor Marvin Rees will serve the rest of his term and step down at the next election. He wasn’t going to stand for re-election, whatever the result.

I really hope I’m wrong about the committee system. I hope it can stay focused on the city and deliver

Mayor Marvin Rees

The disappointed mayor told the scrum of journalists the referendum was a “distraction” from more important issues, such as the cost of living crisis, but a distraction that would have “major consequences for the city”.

He later told the Cable that the low turnout didn’t matter. “We have to respect the result of the referendum. Our job now for the next two years is to focus on delivery and build as much momentum in the city as possible and to take it into the future. 

“The scale of the challenges we now face, coming off the back of the pandemic, Brexit, the climate emergency, the housing crisis, requires a city that is focused on making decisions and delivering them, not on internal wrangling and posturing,” he said.

He said he didn’t have any regrets and referred to his administration’s record on building homes, tackling child poverty and domestic violence.

“For me, one of my real jobs now is to make sure we build that momentum into 2024 and to make sure that we get a really good cohort of Labour councillors elected so we can protect Bristol’s progressive political culture,” he said.

“I really hope politics doesn’t disappear,” he added. “One of the biggest things about the mayoral system is visibility of politics. One of the challenges that needs to be solved is how to make sure that committees and members of committees are visible and accountable.

“I really hope I’m wrong about the committee system. I hope it can stay focused on the city and deliver.”

The anti-mayor campaign celebrate after it was announced that the city had voted for a committee system

Why did we have this referendum?

The relationship between the mayor and councillors has deteriorated in recent years, with opposition councillors clashing regularly with Rees. The referendum was triggered in December last year after winning support from all parties but Labour. 

The debate has centred on criticisms that the mayor has too much power and councillors have been sidelined, while those who campaigned to keep the current model said it has allowed Bristol to get things done and provided stable, visible and accountable leadership.

A low turnout was expected, with lots of discussion leading up to the referendum about how many Bristolians felt uninformed. The council came under fire for not sending out booklets of impartial information to households ahead of the vote.

A total of 94,552 people in Bristol cast their ballot in the referendum, which cost the council roughly £650,000 of taxpayers’ money to hold. Some 56,113 people voted in favour of the committee system, while 38,439 voted to keep the mayoral model – a nearly 60-40 split.

How councillors reacted

Heather Mack, the leader of Green group of councillors, said: “The outcome of tonight’s vote marks a new chapter in the way our city is run. For many years now, important decisions affecting the whole of our city have been made behind closed doors by just one person whom the public and elected councillors cannot easily challenge.

“In the future, we look forward to a fairer, more open way of doing business where decisions are made collaboratively, at open meetings the public can attend and scrutinise,” she added. “I believe empowering councillors will allow the council to take more action to sort out the city’s transport, care crisis and climate emergency, with all councillors able to contribute to and scrutinise crucial decisions.

“Soon Bristol will be run by councillors from all parts of the city – from Filwood to Lawrence Hill, Hengrove to Stoke Bishop – people from all walks of life and backgrounds, working together.”

Councillor Jos Clark, leader of the Lib Dems said: “The Bristol Liberal Democrat group brought the motion for this referendum to Full Council in December last year and in the spirit of cross party working were happy to let the Green Party second the motion. This is a good example of working together for the good of our city and we look forward to more collaboration in future and under a fairer system.”

Volunteers count ballots after polls closed on Thursday night

How does the committee system work?

The committee system, which was in place in the city before 2000, gives councillors more decision-making power. 

Under the committee system, councillors are elected in the same way as they are now, by ward every four years. 

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They make decisions on committees, whose makeup is based on the number of councillors elected from each party, and elect a leader of the council, who is usually the leader of the largest party.

There is usually an over-arching committee designed to oversee the work of the council, which normally sets the council budget – which, as with the mayoral model, needs to be approved by full council. 

The Bristol Civic Leadership Project have said there are different potential options and innovations for a committee system. The researchers also said Bristol can learn from other councils who have recently adopted versions of the committee system.

The new system will come into force after Bristol’s next council elections in 2024, and will last for at least 10 years unless there is a change of law by the government.


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  • I’m lucky enough to have lived in several UK cities in my lifetime : Newcastle,Nottingham, Glasgow. Bristol ranks with all those places as a decent place to live. However, the governance and speed of decision making has always been appalling. Witness , public transport. All of the above have public transport systems light years ahead of Bristol. The Mayoral system had started to improve the speed of decision making , but I guess the people of Bristol prefer the previous shambles whereby nothing changes . I’m getting to the age now when I don’t think I will see a decent public transport system in Bristol in my lifetime ( I’m a fit and healthy 62 year old ) ?


    • We didn’t prefer the previous shambles, but we do want to see how and why decisions are made. We now have 2 years to find a committee system that works. Given the thousands of local administrations across the world, we should be able to find at least a couple that could work for us.


      • How does one make a committee system work, beyond another committee and a committee and committees to oversee said committees?

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