Bristol business leaders fear hung council will damage city's economy
Bristol is heading for a hung council in the local elections next May which could rock the city's economy, according to business leaders.
The Liberal Democrats are currently in power with a majority of three but the elections are expected to see them lose overall control.
A hung council invariably means that decision making slows to a crawl and key issues are fudged. Once this happens, firms lose confidence and are less willing to invest in the city.
The Lib Dems hold 38 of the 70 seats but they could lose as many as six of the 24 which are up for grabs. This means they would drop below the 35-seat benchmark which is needed to give them an overall majority.
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James Durie, director of the Initiative at GWE Business West and Bristol Chamber of Commerce, said: "It's not helpful if there is change and uncertainty.
"We've seen that on the national stage with the comprehensive spending review – firms holding off from investment or implementing new strategies because of the uncertainty of what was going to happen.
"Locally, we would advocate stability and consistency."
Property consultant Ned Cussen, a partner with King Sturge, said uncertainty was one of the key factors to damage business confidence.
He said: "We would say, 'give us certainty, whatever the political colour'. What firms need is a framework from which it can move forward."
He said people crave clarity and leadership – even if they don't agree with it.
"You might disagree with what is being suggested but at least you have got something to work with."
Nick Sturge, outgoing chairman of the Institute of Directors in Bristol, said: "It's much better to have clear leadership.
"But what is also important is the effect that a hung council will have on the new Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP)."
The LEP, which will cover the former Avon area and replace the Regional Development Agency, will be a partnership between businesses and councils to create more jobs, assist the local economy and attract major investment to the area."
Former leading Labour councillor John Bees said: "Whatever is decided, it's bound to be a compromise.
"Rather than one party in control and taking their agenda forward, you tend to get 'bacon slicing' where a bit is taken from each party in order to get something through which is inevitably a compromise."
If the Lib Dems do lose their overall majority, then it is likely they will continue with a minority administration which means they will run the council, knowing that they could be outvoted if the opposition parties gang up against them.
In the past, minority administrations have been set up only after assurances that they would not be outvoted on every single issue – otherwise minority control is unworkable. But a minority administration, which would still have control of the all-powerful cabinet, would not be able to steamroller through key issues such as the controversial Green Open Spaces strategy without some compromise.
It is this grey area of compromise which can be so time-consuming and take so much energy to achieve an outcome.
Invariably, it means a massive slowdown in council business.
The Lib Dems' chief whip, councillor Mark Bailey (Windmill Hill), said his party would not walk away from running a minority administration.
He said: "At the end of the day, we have to deal with the hand that the electorate gives us.
"It's no use worrying about it, we just have to get on with what we've got."
Whatever the results of the election, the outcome will remain for at least two years because there are no local elections in 2012.