Why Did Bristol Vote to Abolish its City Mayor?
Thomas Perrett considers the reasons for the shock demise of Marvin Rees’ position, and whether this spells danger for the city-mayor model
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When voters in Bristol elected to abolish the city’s mayor by a margin of 59% to 41% in this year’s local elections, it sparked a debate about the legitimacy of political authority – calling into question the seemingly positive trend of this form of regional devolution.
Byline Times spoke to local figures who expressed concern with the structure of the mayoral system, which they said creates problems – of accountability, of local priorities not being met, and a lack of plurality and diversity when it comes to regional decision-making.
The referendum in May, in which Bristolians elected to replace the mayoral system with a committee system – whereby decisions are ratified by groups of councillors rather than a cabinet of councillors appointed by the mayor alone – has illustrated the widespread discontent at what many in the city perceive as the mismanagement of local government.
It reflects a complex range of concerns, including the restrictions placed on policy-making by what was widely regarded as a bureaucratic cabinet system, and an absence of effective political representation for minority parties.
These factors have been compounded by tensions over the alleged mismanagement of local priorities, as well as Labour Mayor Marvin Rees’s handling of the Edward Colston statue’s controversial removal in 2020.
As a result of the referendum – which saw a 28.59% turnout of voters – the structure of government in Bristol will change in 2024.
Bristol City Council will be divided into eight politically-balanced committees reflecting the political make-up of the council as a whole – including the views of independents and smaller parties. Under the current city mayoral system, there is a centralisation of power, with Rees appointing a cabinet of up to nine councillors from 70, currently chosen exclusively from the Labour Party.
Bristol operated under a committee system until 2000, when the Local Government Act introduced the ‘Leader and Cabinet’ mode of governance – under which voters could elect councillors, who would then choose members of a cabinet from various parties and elect a leader from the largest party. While similar to the committee system, the cabinet leader took on more executive powers.
However, this system culminated in a series of fractious minority administrations taking charge. Between 2003 and 2012, no party had overall political control over the council – leading to a series of Labour, Liberal Democrat and independent candidates jostling for power.
Plans for transportation and urban development failed to materialise, and the mayoral office was created to provide for more efficient and streamlined implementation of policy.
Origins of the Mayoral System
In 2012, then Prime Minister David Cameron and Mayor of London Boris Johnson convened a meeting with local political leaders, in which they reportedly advocated for the adoption of the mayoral system. They argued it would increase Bristol’s visibility within Westminster.
Johnson pledged to create a network of mayors of major cities, who would meet regularly to discuss planning and local government. Indeed, the Government he now leads plans to further expand the number of city mayors in the coming years.
While there may be mayoral success stories in other regions – such as Labour’s Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester and Conservative Andy Street in the West Midlands – the role in Bristol has been a subject of controversy since it was established.
Its critics say that the centralisation of decision-making in a politically homogeneous cabinet undermines the ability of elected councillors to decide on policy. They suggest a committee system, with decision-making is spread across an array of councillors representing disparate communities and party affiliations, would provide a more democratic means of local government.
Some of the decisions taken by Marvin Rees following his re-election last year have sparked charges of authoritarianism.
In 2021, the Greens become the joint-largest party on Bristol City Council with 24 councillors, equal to the number of Labour representatives. Despite this, Rees refused to create a cabinet comprising both Labour and Green councillors.
The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, have challenged not only the flaws they see in Rees’ leadership, but the underlying, structural factors which have enabled him and his elected cabinet to, in their eyes, monopolise decision-making in local government.
Mary Page – a former Liberal Democrat mayoral candidate in 2020 – is the founder of ‘It’s Our City’, a campaign to replace the mayoral system. She has said that the organisation “is very much framing our arguments around shared ownership of the city’s resources, the fact that community spaces are shared with each other. This is about community politics, about collaboration and the way that people can and do work together”.
A Crisis of Legitimacy
For Jo Sergeant, a former Bristol city councillor who left Labour and joined the Greens in 2021, the Labour Party has been “focused on power for power’s sake”.
She told Byline Times that “if a mayor gets elected, he can make all the policy decisions in the city” and “all the decisions that councillors are involved in are interpreting existing policy, rather than setting new policies”.
As she sees it, Bristol has “70 councillors who have no say”.
Sergeant’s take is echoed by transport planner and former Green Party Bristol city councillor Rob Bryher. He told Byline Times that “what councillors expect and what they can do in office are quite different”.
“Most people assume that, with more councillors, the Greens had more influence on policy and could affect change,” he added. “The system still works on the basis that the person at the top can push anything through. Many new councillors, desperate to implement new policies, suddenly realise that they can’t change anything.”
But the mayoral system’s opponents are not only concerned about a lack of representation and decision-making. They argue that having a mayor and a politically homogeneous cabinet has stymied accountability and therefore sound policy-making.
A committed environmentalist, Bryher told Byline Times that “when it comes to clean air, there has been a very long delay” in any action being taken. “The council said they wanted a clean air zone. Over a period of six years, we’ve had three or four successive delays in implementing this – an amount of time far longer than anyone else has ever taken.”
He criticised Marvin Rees’ record on environmental policy, claiming that his failure to enact proactive clean air policies had caused unnecessary deaths from air pollution. His views are shared by Green Party Leader Caroline Lucas, who recently challenged Rees for delaying the implementation of clean air schemes in the city.
Lucas told the Bristol Post that “estimates are that 300 lives are cut short every year in Bristol due to this city’s toxic air quality – and some of the city’s poorer areas are the most affected, with as many as 10% of deaths linked to air pollution”.
Critics also say that there is nothing to prevent the mayor from supporting extravagant yet ineffective projects.
Describing Rees’ plans for an underground transport system in Bristol as a “vanity project” and “a means to an end, not an end in itself”, Jo Sergeant told Byline Times that “sometimes, political leaders are too focused on getting what they want, to make them look good, that they don’t discuss the practicalities of change”.
Despite Byline Times emphasising to Marvin Rees’ office that it wanted to understand the Mayor’s perspective on the vote to abolish his position, how the role works in practice, and put the claims of critics to him, it declined to comment.
Following the referendum in May, he told the media that having a committee-led system would be “very poor” for Bristol’s governance. “I hope I am wrong, because certainly the city faces challenges and the city needs a leadership that can lead it in the face of the challenges and opportunities,” he added.
A Democratic Alternative?
Although the mayor is directly elected by Bristol constituents, advocates of the committee system claim it is a more democratic and representative alternative to having a figurehead and an appointed cabinet of elected councillors.
The committee system comprises 70 councillors who elect a council leader – normally the leader of the largest party. This person, unlike the mayor, can be replaced at any time by the council. The leader presents an annual budget and major policies to the council, which are then voted on by councillors.
One voter who elected to replace the mayoralty with a committee system in May’s elections told Byline Times that people’s political priorities can more easily be put to councillors. “It is hard to put pressure on one mayor, who holds all the power – but with lots of individual councillors, each can be realistically threatened with replacement, if there’s a concerted community campaign against them,” they said.
These sentiments are common among anti-mayoral campaigners.
In the opinion of Rob Bryher, a committee system allows a diverse range of perspectives to eclipse the control of a single policy-maker and “will deliver a result that takes people with you”. “I don’t think that one person can bring a plurality of voices to the table in the way that a committee system can,” he added.
However, the committee system also has its critics.
The system’s selection of councillors from disparate political parties, as opposed to a single-party cabinet chosen by the mayor, has been criticised for its lack of efficiency. The lack of a more rigid, centralised structure can lead to petty factionalism – with political tribalism getting in the way of important decisions being taken.
Brighton and Hove City Council, which operates a committee system, arguably provides one example of this. Last August, its environment, transport and sustainability urgency sub-committee decided to remove a cycle lane in the city, despite criticism from the Greens – the largest local party – who described the decision as “deeply irresponsible”.
However, Bryher claims that “most of the work of the council already operates on a consensus basis” and “most councillors want to find common ground in every meeting. Even when there is strong disagreement, there is collegiality”.
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Back in April – just before his re-election – the Centre for Cities think tank found that 85% of respondents in Manchester supported the devolution of more powers to Labour Mayor Andy Burnham. He won 67.3% of the vote the following month.
Yet Bryher believes that the committee system potentially heralds a broader shift towards political decentralisation across the country, and that other localities will also choose to dispense with the mayoral system.
He gave the example of Sheffield’s committee system, established last year following a referendum. There, Green Party councillors were allotted new roles as chairs of the housing and health and adult social care committees after the party saw five councillors elected during the May 2021 elections.
“In Sheffield, people felt unlistened to on a number of issues, and felt that they wanted to change local systems,” Bryher told Byline Times. “In the next few years, people will try to alter their systems of governance to something that works for them, rather than something that works for politicians.”
The extent to which the vote to abolish the Bristol mayoralty reflects dissatisfaction with Rees as a particular political figure is unknown. And whether it will actually lead to greater democratic representation, accountability and better policies for local people remains to be seen. As does whether it is a catalyst for a nationwide shift away from city mayors.
But it is clear that voters are asking questions about the legitimacy of political power, its source, and the interests in which it is used – and how it can work for them.