In a referendum in May 2012, the citizens of Bristol voted to introduce a directly elected mayor for the city. The following November, fifteen candidates, more than in any other mayoral contest in England, ran for the newly created office.
To the surprise of many media commentators (as well as the established political parties), Bristol citizens, quirky as always, elected an independent politician. George Ferguson, a respected architect with a good track record of carrying out imaginative urban regeneration projects in the city, defeated Marvin Rees, the Labour Party candidate and his main rival.
Ferguson became the first independent politician to lead a major English city; he’s is now campaigning to win a second term on 5th May. Rees, who was born and bred on a council estate in Bristol and offers a progressive agenda for the city, has been chosen by the Labour Party to run again. He argues – and he has solid evidence to back his argument – that gentrification of parts of the city is rampant, and that the prosperity the city is now enjoying is not widely spread.
While there are still a few weeks to go, and there are several other candidates in the race, it is likely that that the final count will boil down to a run off between the two leading candidates who fought it out in 2012.
But how has having a directly mayor made a difference to the governance of the city?
A new report, The Impact of Mayoral Governance in Bristol – co-authored by myself and Dr David Sweeting of the University of Bristol- shows that the mayoral model has provided a platform for high profile, visible city leadership.
We gathered views about the city’s governance from several hundred Bristol citizens in 2012 and 2014 – before and after the introduction of the mayor. We also surveyed a sample of civic leaders drawn from the community and voluntary sector, the business community, local councillors, council officers and public servants in Bristol, and we organised various focus groups.
Our findings show that the introduction of a directly elected mayor has resulted in a spectacular increase in the visibility of city leadership. In 2012, before the introduction of the mayor, 24 per cent of citizens thought the city had visible leadership – but in 2014, after the introduction of the mayor, 69 per cent agreed.
This increase was also evident in the responses from civic leaders from the community, voluntary and business sectors. Twenty-five per cent agreed that Bristol had visible leadership in 2012, compared with an astonishing 97 per cent in 2014.
Why does visibility matter? A key argument is that it offers greater accountability. If you don’t know who is making decisions how can you hold them to account?
However, visibility is not the whole story. In carrying out research on civic leadership in the UK and other countries for my new book, Leading the Inclusive City, I discovered that that the process of direct election can give directly elected mayors the legitimacy to take tough decisions.
Mayor Ferguson certainly subscribes to this view. In an interview for my book shortly after he was elected, Ferguson told me: “Being elected by the whole electorate creates a huge difference to my authority to do things. It also gives me the courage to make changes that, otherwise, would be very difficult to make.”
However, the report also shows that local councillors largely take a different view of the mayoralty. They believe that this new form of governance concentrates too much power in the hands of one individual.
While 54 per cent of citizens and around 78 per cent of public managers and leaders from the business, community and voluntary sectors said that the mayoral system had ensured Bristol’s interests are better represented, only 33 per of councillors agreed. Many councillors feel that they are being excluded from the decision-making process.
Looking ahead we know that, following the passing of the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016, ministers are strongly committed to the directly elected “city region mayor” model of governance.
This is controversial for some in the Bristol city region. The West of England comprises four unitary authorities – Bristol, South Gloucestershire, Bath & North East Somerset, and North Somerset. Leading councillors in Conservative controlled North Somerset Council have already said they will not accept the idea of a directly elected mayor for the Bristol city region.
However, the major issue facing all local authorities this May, whether they have directly elected mayors or not, is the industrial scale cuts ministers are making to local government funding. In the Bristol case central government financial support to the City Council is being cut from £201m in 2010-11 to £45m in 2019-20. That’s a 78 per cent cut in ten years – and, if these cuts go ahead, local public services will be decimated.
Robin Hambleton is professor of city leadership at the University of the West of England in Bristol, and director of Urban Answers. His book “Leading the Inclusive City” is available here.
This article was originally published in the Centre for Cities’ Mayoral Elections 2016 blog series, in which experts from the worlds of business, housing, local government and academia discuss the big issues ahead of the elections on 5 May.
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