Elected mayor for Bristol - previous council leaders 'too safe'
The people of Bristol today go to the polls to decide whether to have a directly elected mayor for the city.
Debate has been raging in the city since the referendum was announced to decide whether Bristol wants an elected civic leader.
A former Labour city councillor told a debate on elected mayors that previous council leaders in Bristol had been "too safe".
David Johnson, who represented Southville ward for several years but now works as a town planning lecturer at Bristol UWE, said when council leaders were chosen, it was usually because they were regarded as "a safe pair of hands" – not because they were more likely to make decisions which were best for the city.
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He said: "It seems to me that a directly elected mayor is more likely to take a long term view and tackle the big issues instead of getting bogged down with the detail."
The debate, at the Bristol UWE's Frenchay campus, saw two academics put forward the arguments in favour and against an elected mayor for the city.
Dr David Sweeting, a lecturer in urban studies at Bristol University, said there were three main reasons why Bristol should have an elected mayor – they would be more democratic, more accountable and more effective.
He said the current council leader was chosen by a small group of councillors behind closed doors and therefore it was never clear what criterion was used to pick them.
Yet if an elected mayor was not liked, then voters could make sure they were kicked out of office after four years.
He said an elected mayor would be more widely known among the electorate and this would help to make them more accountable.
He said there had been seven council leaders in 14 years in Bristol which prevented stable governance with such a large and complex organisation as the city council.
Professor Alex Marsh, also from the School of Policy Studies at Bristol University said it would need a big leap of faith for people to vote in favour of an elected mayor when it was not clear what their powers would be.
He said an elected mayor would be more effective if they had power for the region, not just Bristol, but it was not clear how this might be achieved.
He said there was a danger that an elected mayor might be divisive because they were not obliged to have a consensual arrangement with councillors.
He said if voters picked the wrong person to do the job, then there was nothing they could do about it for four years.
He said: "Some people might argue that desperate measures are needed to bring better governance to Bristol.
"But it's a leap in the dark and a step too far."
There were only 13 people in the audience, nine of whom were in favour of an elected mayor, one against and three abstentions.
â South West Tory Euro MP Ashley Fox has spoken out in favour of an elected mayor for Bristol.
Mr Fox, a former city councillor, said an elected mayor would fundamentally change the way in which the city was governed.
He said: "If we reject the mayor model, then we are stuck with the current system, whereby the leader of council is chosen by a handful of councillors behind closed doors. The current system isn't accountable and isn't stable either – we have had five leaders in the last 10 years.
"The leader of council wields enormous power, is meant to provide a strategic vision for our city, is our ambassador to the world, and yet almost none of the 317,000 voters in Bristol have had a say on who this person is. This cannot be right in a modern democracy.
"A mayor for Bristol would be democratically elected by the people. They would be accountable to the whole city just a handful of councillors. They would have a stable four-year term to provide leadership and vision, based on a plan that we will have voted for."
â THE Tory councillor for St George East spoke out against having an elected mayor.
He said: "There are many times in life when the expression 'a change is as good as a holiday' is apt. This is not one of those situations.
"My reason for not supporting an elected mayor for the city and county of Bristol are apolitical. I do not feel in my heart that it is what this city needs.
Instead of abandoning our current system, we should fight to better it, strive to rejuvenate it and not simply declare it "not fit for purpose".
In all surrounding authorities, the traditional structure delivered strong and consistent governance for years and yet the same system is not good enough for the city which is the hub of all those authorities, creating the jobs and other major provisions on which they are to differing degrees, dependent.
I too want to see change, I will support that change, I will encourage that change, but I will not support an elected mayor.
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.
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.