Friday, 4 May 2012

Bristol Bucks The Trend

Really wonderful news that Bristol has opted to have an elected mayor, standing alone amongst the ten other cities who voted yesterday.

Admittedly on a dismal turnout of just 24%, (although there weren’t any local council elections this time round) the Yes vote carried by a majority of 5,152: 41,032, or 53%, came out in favour, against the 35,880, or 47% of voters, happy with the status-quo.

It’s not a ringing endorsement of the mayoral concept – only 12% of the city actually voted yes – but it’s a crucial start. There has long been a view that whilst Bristol is a terrific city to live in, it lacks real leadership.

Plagued by hung councils, business leaders have in the past warned that minority administrations risk harming the local economy.

Speaking before the 2011 local election, 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."

Last year, Lord Adonis, Labour peer and championing elected mayors, said that the city was ‘working particularly badly.’ Pointing out that Bristol has had seven different leaders in the past 10 years, he queried how the current set up could benefit the city:

“The big issue is can Bristol have a stronger, more effective, leadership if it goes to an elected mayor and doesn't have this constant instability in the council which is leading to poor services?

"An elected mayor would have a proper strategic plan for the city.

"[This] which would bring much greater focus, much greater energy and much greater corporate effort into improving services.

"Constant changes in administration [are] not good for strategic planning and not good for engendering confidence in the city."

Now the city has just that chance.

The concept of the elected mayor has always been a leap of faith, a step into the unknown. Even though there are other mayors outside of London (in Leicester and Doncaster, for example), the range of powers afforded to the latest mayors (Liverpool and Salford sensibly, in my mind, bypassed the referendum and went straight to voting one in) is still pretty much up in the air.

Asking voters to decide on something when even the government hasn’t been clear was never going to be an easy sell. It would have made far more sense to entice voters with the promise of what a mayor would bring to their city, rather than allowing them to merely imagine. In the end, most weren’t prepared to.

For Bristol, the result is vindication for the hard work and persistence by Jaya Chakrabarti, who has been leading the ‘Yes’ campaign and was naturally delighted with the result:

“We hope that when we get to choosing a mayor for the city that we can engage the entire city and bring the whole city forward to a new level," she said.

"We are very proud to have bucked the national trend."

Local Labour activist, former councillor, and a long time proponent of the idea, Paul Smith, believes the council is stuck in a rut and needs shaking up. The city needs:

“Someone with the democratic legitimacy to speak for the whole city not just one political part, [and] who draws votes from all of the city and doesn’t ignore areas where their party can’t win wards.”

A mayor will finally have an opportunity to escape the quagmire of never-ending hung councils and set about tackling the city’s chronically unreliable and expensive bus service, which many locals will tell you should find its way to the top of any ‘to do’ list.

Roll on November 15, where a new mayor will be sworn into office. It can’t come too soon.

This comment piece was first published by Speaker's Chair on Friday 4 May 2012

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