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Bristol is about to ditch its mayor. What can it learn from Sheffield?

The clock is ticking down on Marvin Rees’ time in charge, with a new less centralised power structure based around committees replacing the mayoral model. With a similar transition having taken place in South Yorkshire, are there lessons for our city?

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Green councillor Lorraine Francis didn’t hold back during a stormy meeting of Bristol City Council’s Committee Model Working Group (CMWG) on 24 November, 2023.

“I’m going to excuse myself,” she declared, stating that whatever happened next would be without her consent. “I’m not going to be channelled down the road when there’s lots of unanswered questions. This isn’t good politics.”

The CWMG had been tasked with drafting Bristol’s new constitution ahead of the city’s move to a committee system in May – after we voted in a referendum two years ago to bin the mayoral system. Meeting since late 2022, it brought together councillors from all parties and offers a glimpse into future decision-making – by committees staffed in proportion to different parties’ representation on the council.

The meeting was adjourned and reconvened a week later to finalise proposals. But dissent lingered. The following week, Conservative Richard Eddy declared he’d “rather burn in hell” than support Labour’s proposal for a new ‘equity fund’.

This clash within the CMWG, over a mere £212,250, underscores a potential flaw in the new model, seen as more consensus-driven than the current mayoral system: parties may not always collaborate effectively. 

With the clock ticking down on the transition, now little more than a month away, we look at what’s changing in Bristol, and examine concerns. We also ask what we can learn from similarly-sized city, Sheffield, which also recently moved to a committee system.

Too much power in one person’s hands’

In May 2022, Bristol voted to shift from a mayoral to committee system on a turnout of just 28.7%, with 56,113 in favour and 38,439 against. The switch, set for 5 May 2024, follows the unanimous passage of the new constitution at a full council meeting on 9 January, with only outgoing mayor, Marvin Rees, abstaining.

The process began in December 2021 when a council motion for a referendum on Bristol’s mayoral model, tabled by the Liberal Democrat won support from the Greens and Conservatives. Notably, Labour opposed it.

Some view this as a regression for Bristol, which had a committee system up until it was abolished nationally by the Local Government Act 2000. A subsequent act in 2011 reintroduced committee systems as an option – alongside one for a directly elected mayor if endorsed by referendum. Bristol opted for the latter in 2012, with its push for a mayor fuelled by concerns the city’s decision-making had been too slow for decades. 

But only a decade later, some felt the mayor had too much power. Tory councillor Geoff Gollop, who was CMWG vice-chair, says Rees overruling the council led him to shift his support away from the ‘strong leader’ approach. “It was too much power in the hands of one person with no mechanism to challenge extreme decisions.” He cites as an example “the mayor’s decision” to move Bristol’s long-proposed city-centre arena to Filton.

Rob Bryher, a former Green councillor and pro-committee system campaigner, highlights similar reasons for the change. Bristolians “don’t like being patronised” and want “checks and balances to prick the pomposity from the mayor”, he says.

Resourcing concerns

Having not been allocated any separate funding in Bristol’s budget, resourcing has seemingly been an issue for the CMWG from the outset. A public question put to the committee asked whether the handful of focus groups conducted could adequately capture the views of those who desired change.

In autumn 2023, concerns were raised with the Cable via council insiders about understaffing of the implementation process. They echoed statements Green councillors have made accusing the current administration of trying to hobble the new system, which have hardly been calmed by the mayor’s claims it represents a “bad move for the city”.

A freedom of information (FOI) request we sent to the council revealed that the process had “two lead full-time officers” supporting committee system implementation alongside their existing duties, “with other officers assisting when necessary”. Notably, one of those officers – Jim Cliffe, the council’s planning obligations manager – told the 1 December CMWG meeting. “I’m trying to do more than one person’s job and any [extra work]… means something drops off the bottom.”

Gollop, who represents Westbury-on-Trym, expressed contentment with the resourcing from a working-group perspective. But other elected members are more cagey about the level of commitment to the process. 

“The mayor owns the budget. [Money for] more staff would have had to come through the administration… so, we only had access to the staff that we had,” says Francis, a Green councillor for Eastville.

“Time will tell,” says Tom Renhard, a Labour councillor for Horfield and leader of the party’s council group, when asked if the CMWG has had enough resources to succeed. “The number of hours doesn’t always equate to the quality of output,” adds Renhard, Bristol’s cabinet member for housing. “Obviously, we need to make sure we’re resourcing things to do them well.”

Lessons from Sheffield

Sheffield, 180 miles north of Bristol, previously operated under a ‘leader and cabinet’ system, where an executive group makes most decisions, rather than having an elected city mayor. It doesn’t therefore offer an exact comparison for Bristol. But its referendum in May 2021, triggered by a 26,000-strong petition by grassroots campaign It’s Our City, was though similarly rooted in perceptions that the politicians in charge had overreached. 

Its catalyst was the notorious felling of nearly 20,000 street trees and subsequent persecution of protesters, which led to national uproar and the resignation of Labour council leader Terry Fox. The new governance model was implemented by May 2022.

Responding to the same FOI request we sent to Bristol, Sheffield City Council said it had allocated seven full-time and six part-time staff for varying lengths of time. It said delivering its project totalled 1,262 staff days – a level of detail Bristol was not able to provide.

Nearly two years on from the handover, can anything be learned from the Steel City, a similar-sized local authority that was also grappling with issues over power and decision-making? 

One question mark is over the complexity of the new system. Sheffield began with eight committees, later increased to nine – the most in any UK council. 

Ruth Hubbard, co-founder of It’s Our City, warns the structure can be a bureaucratic “monster”, causing fragmentation and delays. For instance, concerns about the annual Tramlines festival – around issues such as noise, public drunkenness and its impact on Hillsborough’s park and local shops – faced ambiguity about which committee to address. 

Bristol has opted for almost as many committees as Sheffield – eight. Renhard defended this choice, citing the extensive work required in a city of Bristol’s size.

The push for democracy, which underpins the argument for the committee system, poses another question mark. One measure of success is citizen engagement. 

Sheffield saw a 70% surge in public questions post-implementation. But Nabeela Mowlana, Labour councillor for Park and Arbourthorne, cautions against a “tendency to pretend the committee system has fixed all problems” around engagement. 

Citizens must still take time off work to attend meetings to ask questions – and may still receive bureaucratic pre-written responses. In a recent blog that mostly celebrated the success of the new system, Sheffield Greens emphasised the need for further work around public engagement.

“The bigger issues [around] democracy, participation, and inequality have not gone away,” agrees Hubbard. But while she feels Sheffield’s governance needs further work, she believes the impact of the petition, collected through in-person canvassing, shows citizens’ political opinion can be mobilised to push change. “Their actions completely disrupted this space”.

So now what?

Back in Bristol of course, the new system is far from finalised. “We’re not going to have figured everything out,” says Renhard. “Ultimately until you’re in it, you’re not going to see how it’s going to pan out.” Councillors will have a chance to examine and amend the system in November to reflect this.

Before then lie May’s elections, with the Green Party widely tipped to gain control of the council. Sheffield, post-committee system, has only experienced no-overall control, with committee chairs shared between the parties – a situation advocated by campaigners to prevent power consolidation. 

Lorraine Francis asserts that even with a majority, the Bristol Greens wouldn’t want “one party [deciding] to chair every single committee”, emphasising the need for cross-party leadership. Renhard did not make any such commitment, saying only that Labour will “see what the lay of the land is like following the election”.

Ultimately, Bristol belongs to Bristolians, and for those invested in restructuring power in the city, spring 2024 is just the start of the process.

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