Bristol mayoral debate on College Green
AN ELECTED mayor would give Bristol the "direction, vision and passion" its leadership currently lacks – according to Lord Michael Heseltine.
With less than three weeks until Bristol goes to the polls, Lord Heseltine has wholeheartedly backed the idea of a directly elected mayor for the city.
He claims Bristol "has yet to fulfil its potential" as one of the country's great cities, but a figurehead who is chosen by the people could be exactly what's needed to make that happen.
His comments came just as the debate over what would be the biggest change in Bristol's governance in a century was finally taken to the streets.
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Yesterday the yes and no campaigns took part in a soap box-style debate in the heart of the city.
Speakers for and against battled it out at an old-style hustings on College Green.
Although the elected mayor debate has yet to truly connect with the people of Bristol at large, the crowd of 200 people suggested that might be changing.
All sides certainly hope so, as the vote to change the city's current political system is just 19 days away.
The event was an opportunity for the public to get involved, as it will be the people of Bristol who ultimately decide whether we should change to a new type of leadership or stick with what we've got.
Currently, the ruling party on Bristol City Council chooses its own leader – at the moment that means Liberal Democrat Barbara Janke is in charge.
If we change to an elected mayor, this position would be scrapped and replaced with someone who would be voted for directly by the public once every four years.
Self-appointed impresario Stephen Perry set the tone for the Speakers Corner event from the outset: "Everyone gets a chance to speak. And if you don't like them, you can boo. We don't have to tolerate anyone being boring or too quiet – you can heckle or drift away."
And then he spoke in favour of an elected mayor because the council couldn't organise a certain type of event in a brewery.
Martin Summers, co-organiser of the event, then took the opposite view, arguing there was no need for an elected mayor because there was no real demand for one.
These two lively characters triggered a host of speakers – mostly politicians – to bat for and against.
First on the podium was "Yes" campaigner Chaka who said: "For the past 10 or 15 years, this city has not punched its weight.
"We've got no decent public transport system, no trams, our education system is in a shambles and an elected mayor would be able to attract more funds for the city."
Green councillor Gus Hoyt said reform was needed – but an elected mayor was not the right answer.
"We want a devolving of power but we don't want to see it centralised into one person," he said.
Tory leader Peter Abraham followed by saying it was time for a change because the council was old-fashioned and outdated and not fit for purpose. He said: "We have an undemocratic system at the moment which sees the council leader chosen by 15 or 16 people – let the people of the city decide who runs it."
Well-known architect and former High Sheriff George Ferguson urged an elected mayor to restore some pride in the city.
"Let's get some real leadership in the city instead of changing our leaders every year or so," he said.
Lib Dem Cabinet Councillor Tim Kent said: "There is one million reasons why we should not have an elected mayor – that the £1 million cost this dictator would cost."
The vast majority of attendees were politicians, party activists or journalists.
Retired civil servant Karen Donn, 62, from Knowle who is in favour of an elected mayor said she made the trip to hear what speakers had to say.
"People have not got a clue what this issue is about and I think it is important to be informed about how it would work."
One woman, who declined to give her name, said she wanted to hear what the new post involved and the arguments for and against.
But she was disappointed with the name-calling and "party political guff".
Simon Howlett, 43, an education and training consultant from Totterdown, said: "I wanted to come down and hear what the key players had to say about it."
Council worker Lorna Whitehead, 32, from Bishopston, said: "We don't know who the candidates are yet and until we do, it's very difficult to make up your mind, either yes or no.
"We really don't know who stands for what."
Civil servant Andrea Dell, 29, from Cotham, said: "It has been entertaining and interesting to hear the different points of view."
Afterwards Mr Perry paid tribute to the Post for its campaign to bring the issue to the forefront for voters.
He said he was delighted with the turnout – the biggest for a Speakers' Corner event.
A referendum will be held on May 3 to decide if we have elections in November for an elected mayor.
But the signs are that the turnout in May will be extremely low because there are no local elections in Bristol this year.
Elected mayor: What’s it all about?
What? A referendum to decide whether Bristol should have a directly elected mayor to replace the existing leader of Bristol City Council. Bristol is one of ten major cities across the country that are being given the choice.
When? May 3
Why? The coalition government are pushing for elected mayors as a way of giving local people more power. Supporters of elected mayors say they would help raise the profile of cities like Bristol, with one figure who could get things done. Opponents believe it puts too much power in one person’s hands and is a waste of money that could be better spent elsewhere.
Who? That’s what we don’t know yet. If Bristol says yes to an elected mayor next month, an election wouldn’t take place until November. That gives potential candidates months to come out of the woodwork and declare they are running for the position. So far only architect George Ferguson and MP Stephen Williams have indicated they might run for the job. It would seem everyone is hedging their bets until the referendum in May.