Date posted: 22 March 12, 16:00
By Gus Hoyt and Peter Abraham
In the third in our series of Ideas Notebooks on the elected mayor for Bristol debate we have two new contributions. Gus Hoyt, Green Party Councillor for Ashley Ward, argues against an elected mayor, while Peter Abraham, leader of the Conservative group, argues for.
Reflections on an elected mayor for Bristol
I’ll begin by stating the official stance of the Bristol Green Party: we believe in greater devolution of decisions to local communities and not the continuous centralisation of power. If the people of Bristol vote for the creation of a mayor we expect to stand. We are a political party and work within the system available – however imperfect it may be. This article is however purely my own musings.
The question we shall answer in May is flawed. It is an illusion of choice. The coalition is hinting that we have the right to decide our destiny. This is pure smoke and mirrors – just like with the previous referendum on our electoral process. We should be consulted on how we want to govern and be governed, not whether we want one bad system or another. We are being offered the option of two evils – our choice in May is to decide which is the lesser. I’ll let others argue the semantics and details.
We are told the mayor will be able to wave a magic wand and rid the city of its woes. Perhaps after a ‘yes’ vote we will wake up in the morning and find we live in Nottingham? The ‘City Powers’ that are on offer are not limited to a ‘yes’ vote. To suggest otherwise is to stray further into the shadowy world of misinformation and deceit that leads to low ratings of ‘politicians’ and ‘politics’ in general.
One fear is the lack of accountability. There will be no right of re-call. This is essential in all forms of modern politics. It is the right of citizens or councillors to call for a vote of no confidence in an administration. With a fixed term-mayor, this right is a must. MP Stephen Williams objects to this and says it will just lead to unpopular politicians being ousted; this is exactly the point and the right of recall is one I know many residents of Bristol West wish we currently had.
The mayor is also to have a fixed four-year term. A lot of good can happen in four years, but so can a lot of harm. What levels of scrutiny will the council really have and how do we ensure the mayor sticks to their election promises? There must also be a clause – like the American Presidency – where the number of terms is limited. We must be aware of the potential dangers of an imperial mayor ruling the city for the remainder of her/his life.
A mayor should have to sever all business ties whilst in power and for a fixed term after they exit the role. The potential for corruption (hard and soft) is immense and we only need to look at Chicago to see how bad things can get with a corrupt mayor.
The entire city will vote in a mayoral election. It will require vast sums of money (the information leaflet being sent to all homes alone is costing BCC £22k to produce and deliver). Will candidates receive funds to allow them to all stand on equal grounds? Will there be limits of how much individuals/businesses can donate – or how much a wealthy individual can contribute for their own campaign? The potential to simply ‘buy’ the election seems too great and barriers need to be put in place to ensure a truly democratic decision is reached.
Essentially, we are being asked an over-simplified question, with not enough time and insufficient information. This is clearly a deliberate tactic of central government: they are hustling those that want change to make a snap decision and skip over all the questions we really should be asking about how we want this city to be run. I want change. We need change! But this referendum in May is not the way forward.
Why I want a Vote for a City Mayor in May
The excellent Festival of Ideas debate last December and subsequent contributions from all sides on the issue of an elected mayor for Bristol have shown a tremendous dissatisfaction with our current governance arrangements and a real appetite for change – almost at any price.
The referendum question set for May will ask people to make a very simple choice – but one with complicated and far-reaching consequences. Do you want to continue to be governed by a political leader (chosen by colleagues from amongst the ranks of the majority party) or a person elected by voters from right across the city?
Whilst the vexed issue of mayoral powers remains to be resolved, in that the Coalition have specifically told us that they want to tailor these to reflect local needs – a bespoke model which will vary from place to place, this argument is in many ways a distraction from the real strength of making a switch to a city mayor, the potential that this office holds to provide clear and dynamic leadership.
I would argue that these benefits alone – irrespective of the granting of additional or enhanced powers – dictate and define the case for this very different kind of mayor. If elected tomorrow, we know that, at the very least, such post holders would automatically enjoy all of the political rights and privileges of the current leader of council and, importantly, exert executive power over the senior officer corps of the council.
It has long been recognised that at both national and local levels, under our present system, much decision-making, including long-term strategic planning, is taken by faceless and unaccountable bureaucrats – permanent employees upon whose professional judgment elected members rely and trust.
The downside to this relationship is that more often than not, cabinet councillors will be presented with choices over which they may have little knowledge or (on the basis of recent experience) seemingly any opportunity or ability to modify. I would include three recent disastrous policy debacles to illustrate this point (i) the short-sighted Primary School Review (which led to cuts in so-called surplus places) when in fact we have a genuine crisis in provision; (ii) the ill-fated Parks & Green Spaces Strategy – which was widely rejected by the electorate at last year’s local elections and cost the Liberal Democrats their majority and (iii) the extremely expensive folly that is the Greater Bristol Bus Network. Despite going through lengthy and costly public consultations over this bus-priority scheme, many remain frustrated that whilst fears were raised over certain design aspects of these corridors, critical voices have largely gone unheard.
An elected mayor would have to remain mindful of the concerns of the majority of Bristolians – to whom they are directly accountable – and not be swayed by the arguments of narrow or sectional interest groups. Moreover, by being placed at the centre and apex of the organisation charged with delivering local services, a city mayor could challenge entrenched interests and ensure that those hidden within the council structure (who may share some responsibility for policy failures) are actually brought to book for their mistakes.
Some have argued that with government intent on devolving powers to the cities anyway – there is no need for an all-powerful figurehead in the form of a mayor – that council leaders can command the same authority to champion the main city-regions. Well, frankly, that position is either naive or deliberately misleading.
It has been made perfectly clear that such powers will only be granted to those who are able to pass the ‘governance’ and ‘geography’ tests. In other words, they must demonstrate true leadership and the ability to build effective partnerships with the business community, other organs of the state and between neighbouring local authorities.
Our current ‘peculiar’ form of local democracy otherwise known as elections-by-thirds has palpably failed to deliver this leadership – hence the high level of discontent in it exhibited across the political divide. It is because of this failure of competence, a system which has proven unable to redeem itself, that I believe in the ability of city mayors – whose reach will inevitably extend beyond our borders – to unlock Bristol’s great economic potential.
The role of these mayors can only grow over time but I hope to have shown that they can still achieve a great deal even operating within existing constraints. It only remains for a majority of voters to take this same intellectual leap on 3 May to bring about what I am persuaded will be a change for the good.
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