Let’s grasp the opportunity to make a good city for all.

So Bristol has spoken – and the result could not have been clearer with a higher turnout than anyone predicted for a stand-alone referendum. For what was probably a myriad of reasons, both positive and negative, we are to end the city mayoral system and move to a committee and council leader system. 

It may surprise many that, as a strong advocate for the mayoral system when we were given the opportunity in 2012, I was one of the 60% or so voters who on May 5th voted for change.  What many will not know is that I supported Baroness Barbara Janke’s 2015 amendment to the Devolution Bill that entitled us to a referendum and review of the system after 10 years. While at the time I did not realise how much things would have changed I did feel that it was right that Bristol should be allowed a rethink after we had time to assess the pros and cons.

Let me start by saying the referendum was neither about me, as the previous mayor, or Marvin Rees the current mayor – or at least it shouldn’t have been! However it is inevitable that voters’ decisions will have been affected by their perception of the success or failure of both our terms of office, and a chance, as Marvin put it, to ‘have a pop’ at one or the other of us – or both. 

So why should I decide to vote for change? Whoever first said ‘When the facts change I change my mind’ showed rather greater wisdom than many politicians who too often stick their heels in come what may. Well the facts have changed hugely since 2012 when I became Bristol’s first elected mayor.  

In summary, the first change came with the all-out 4 yearly elections that we introduced to replace the ‘elections-by-thirds’ that had dogged the city and exacerbated the political instability. It probably caused my demise but was the right thing to do.

The second game changer came in 2017 with the election of Dan Norris as Metro Mayor for the city region, known as the West of England, who, unlike more successful authorities such as Greater Manchester, has been severely handicapped by competition from a Bristol elected mayor and denied the logical inclusion of North Somerset into the combined authority. 

Other significant changes include the growth of Bristol’s urban area well beyond its city boundary, and the imposition of a single party cabinet and control that fails to respect the make up of the Council. From the feedback I received I suspect that the latter, rightly or wrongly, was the biggest influence for change.

So the signals are clear, the Bristol electorate has voted for a more collaborative way forward. It is now incumbent on our 70 Councillors and their 4 parties to use the 2 years leading up to the change in May 2024 to ensure that the will of the people is honoured and that ‘One City’ from now on is One City for all rather than One City for those who agree with the mayor.

Let’s face it – the vote was all the more remarkable in that the alternative to a Mayoral system was presented as a ‘Committee System’. Committees have had bad press, and have understandably been the subject of many jibes. Camels and Horses come to mind! There was no mention of there being a leader in the referendum choice, while the reality is that some great local leaders have been elected under a committee system. Bristol built nearly 50,000 Council homes and hundreds of local authority schools under a committee system as well as creating our great parks and principal leisure attractions. 

No system is perfect but I have real hope that a new spirit of cooperation will emerge, and that some good people who have hesitated to stand, or have left office under a mayoral system, will see fit to serve their city with the real prospect of more influence. It is an opportunity to loosen the ties with the dominant national parties and to include people from all parties and none who put the city way ahead of party loyalty.

Now is the time to fight for genuine local democracy and free us of the stranglehold of the national parties, who see local government as an arm of government,. When I, as a young architect, was asked to stand as a Liberal in 1973 to become a councillor for Cabot Ward I did so without having taken any part in politics, national or local, but with a love for the area I lived and worked in, which was under threat from urban highways and inappropriate development. Does that ring any bells?! 

Let’s now grasp this opportunity we have been given to make a good city for all.

George Ferguson

9th May 2022 

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