You decide in second referendum

May 03 2022

BRISTOL will go to the polls on May 5 to decide whether to keep an elected mayor or put all council powers back in the hands of councillors.

In the referendum, voters will be asked one question: "How would you like Bristol City Council to be run?"

There are two answers to choose: either "By a Mayor who is elected by voters" or "By one or more Committees made up of elected Councillors".

Critics of the mayoral system say it has put too much power in the hands of one person and undermined the role of councillors representing communities.

Opponents of the committee system, which was the way the council was run until 2000, say it led to political bickering and nothing got done.

The elected mayor was introduced after a change in the law forced Bristol to hold a referendum in 2012, and residents voted in favour.

That decision was supposed to be irreversible, but another law change in 2016 – introduced via an amendment in the House of Lords by former city council leader Barbara Janke, a Liberal Democrat life peer – allowed councillors to hold another referendum.

After Labour lost control of the council chamber last year, councillors voted by 41 to 24 to put the question of city leadership back to the people.

Green, Lib Dem and Conservative councillors voted for a second referendum.

The only group to vote against was Labour, the party of current mayor Marvin Rees.

Before last May's mayoral election, both the Tory and Lib Dem candidates had told a Voice Q&A that the mayor had "too much power" and was not needed now the region had a Metro Mayor.

The Green candidate said the mayor needed to be more accountable and should have a cross-party cabinet, but did not call for the abolition of the post.

But after Mr Rees turned down a post-election demand for posts on his cabinet from the Greens, who had won an equal number of council seats to Labour, they joined the anti-mayor camp.

Green group leader Heather Mack blamed the mayoral system for delays over the latest budget, which she said would not have happened under the committee system.

Academics at Bristol University and the University of the West of England have produced a report, called the Bristol Civic Leadership Project, which "explores the pros and cons" of the options facing voters.

The report does not favour one option over the other, saying both have "strengths and weaknesses": the mayoral system brings stability and greater visibility but concerns about "over-concentration of powers in the mayor’s office"; the committee system can work "effectively and democratically", but there are questions over accountability of leadership, scrutiny and time-consuming meetings.

The authors say Bristol citizens should not have been given the "binary choice" between mayor and committee without discussing other options, such as the council leader and cabinet system the city had between 2000 and 2012.

They said: "We are aware of no detailed discussion of or rationale for why the committee model is being presented to the citizens of Bristol rather than the leader and cabinet model."

Regardless of the result, however, they say the referendum presents a “huge opportunity for positive reform”.