Mayor or committees won’t solve Bristol’s collaboration challenge alone

This post first appeared on Bristol 24/7’s Your Say section on 19 April. Thanks to them for their excellent coverage of all perspectives of the city’s mayoral referendum.

I’ve been fortunate to see devolution take shape in cities across England over the last 20 years.

That experience leads me to believe that local people, not Westminster, should have the tools to lead this change. Although Marvin Rees last year received a mandate to serve as mayor until 2024, Bristol has further to go before seeing the full benefits of devolution.

The referendum around whether the council is best led by a mayor or committee model of governance should sit within this context.

Context matters here. Although I’ve clocked hundreds of posts across Twitter and news feeds, this isn’t easy to see amidst claim and counterclaim.

Top posts online (by engagement) mentioning the referendum between 13 March and 16 April. 

I don’t have a vote in the referendum, but I am interested in its outcome as someone who works here and employs people living in the city. My thoughts come from that perspective, as someone who’s worked with the council and the offices of both elected mayors since 2010.

No silver bullet

Leading Bristol is complicated. The city faces huge financial, economic, social and environmental challenges. Some decisions are unpopular, as austerity serves up tough choices.

I believe decisions around matters like the arena happened for the right reasons. But you don’t have to agree with me on this point to recognise that neither the mayoral nor committee system offers a ‘silver bullet’ for Bristol.

It must sit alongside a readiness to collaborate. It would be great to see all parties make clear commitments on this after 5 May.

Want evidence that stability works? Look north

Supporters of the mayoral system say visible, stable leadership is a key strength. Opponents claim there’s no evidence to support this. Both positions are debatable.

Bristol’s mayoral system hasn’t had the time to prove its value, but other regions have seen success. I look jealously to Greater Manchester. Its 10 (yes, ten) local authorities work together and alongside neighbouring regions to champion their communities, secure investment and deliver a transport system of which we can only dream.

Partners coalesce around Manchester City Council, which Sir Richard Leese led from 1996 until last year. Sir Richard wasn’t an elected mayor. But Manchester shows that visible, stable leadership works. It also shows that a city region can have two elected mayors in Greater Manchester’s Andy Burnham and Salford’s Paul Dennett.

Improve, don’t scrap

No governance model is perfect, and people seem to agree that Bristol’s system needs improving.

Councillors and cabinet members should be more involved in decision making. Bristol’s cabinet would benefit from more members from other parties, given the council’s political make-up. And communities need a greater voice on issues affecting them.

We don’t need to scrap the mayoral system for any of this to happen. And it may not address the fundamental engagement challenges that hold us back, which I turn to below.

People, not process

Bristol and the West of England has what I call a collaboration challenge. As the government rolls on with its vague Levelling Up programme, it looks to places that will deliver before the next election.

Partners quarrelling won’t instil confidence on the national stage. Whatever the referendum result, collaboration needs to improve at all levels – regionally, at city level and how we all relate to one another.

This means working together to find ‘win win’ solutions. It means listening, not bawling each other out. It means putting a joined-up, coherent vision of what the city needs and uniting behind it. Look again at how they do this in the north, speaking as one for their regions. We have ground to make up.

Challenges remain after 5 May

It’s troubling that a low turn-out could determine the referendum. Whatever the result, we need to have a more positive conversation afterwards.

Bristol is a fantastic city in which to live, work and run a business, but it faces huge challenges. Housing is becoming less affordable. Too many people can’t access opportunities in the city. Our public transport is pitiful compared with other places. The council faces unprecedented funding pressures, which have worsened during the pandemic.

Committee or mayor, those leading the city have a huge responsibility in addressing those challenges.

Use your vote

Given this context, I prefer an improved mayoral model, or a leader and cabinet system (which isn’t even on the ballot) to a return to committees. I hope all Bristolians who can vote in the referendum do so, to give a clear mandate for the way forward.

Whatever the outcome, we need to have a positive public discussion to give our leaders every chance of success.

Without a commitment to collaboration, I fear we may be no further forward in 2032.