As the first Directly Elected Mayor (DEM) for Bristol enters his third year of office, what can we say about this new role and the changes we have seen during the first two years? Has it worked, has the role made a difference? To some degree it depends on your starting point. If you were one of those who supported the idea of a DEM and voted Yes in the referendum, and/or voted for George Ferguson in the election then you are likely to be more positively disposed to both the role and the incumbent (or at least I would imagine that to be the case). Those who voted No in the referendum and were opposed to the role of a DEM for Bristol and/or subsequently voted for another candidate in the election (or didn’t vote at all) may well be likely to look for more negatives and be more critical of the system as it is working now. It is difficult to be objective when you start from a particular position.
Equally it is highly likely that you were one of those who didn’t vote in the referendum and didn’t vote in the subsequent election, one of the majority in fact? So whilst the political elite and the powers in central government believe DEM are an important issue in terms of how our cities are run and managed, local people seemed to be less than convinced, either by the proposals at the time or more likely were just disillusioned with the political classes generally – “they’re all as bad as one another” or “they’re all the same” being an often quoted reason for not voting.
It seems to me that the idea of a DEM before the experience of one was not enough to convince people it might be a solution to the negativity and disinterest surrounding local democracy – it didn’t catch on with most of the public, wasn’t interesting enough or different enough? It will be interesting therefore to see in 2016, when the Bristol Mayor is up for election alongside all 70 local councillors, whether or not people have been more or less convinced by the experience of having a city mayor, how the role works and what difference it makes.
One thing is clear, George Ferguson is far more visible as a council leader and champion for the city than any other recent leader of the council. This view is supported by the work of Bristol University and UWE in their research on civic leadership, which clearly found that the mayoral model in Bristol provides high profile, visible leadership. But is visibility enough, what more did we expect from this new role? Issues and benefits of the role talked about at the time of the referendum included, clarity of decision making, more power and resources to come from government, ability to take the difficult decisions and ability to be more strategic and develop longer term plans because the role was not tied to the annual election cycle. So have we seen a difference in relation to any of these issues? Has George Ferguson delivered on any of these aspects any better than the council and party leaders have in the past? At the time the arguments for a DEM were quite compelling – we’d get more power, more money, more responsibility locally as a result of going along with this government promoted strategy. The practice however is less compelling, have we really done better than any of the other core cities when it comes to devolved power and additional resources – from where I’m sitting it doesn’t look like it. In fact other cities are now beginning to steal the march on us – Manchester with it’s combined authority and the promise of a metro mayor, Leeds and Birmingham likely to follow soon, all look set to achieve more. So what difference has having an elected mayor really made to Bristol, beyond increasing the visibility of the role and the city, which are major achievements in themselves, but is that all we can expect?
Which brings me to the Mayor’s Annual Lecture and State of the City address. Around 900 people gathered in the Great Hall at the Wills Memorial Building last night (10th Nov) to listen to George’s second annual lecture, and I was amongst them. Overall what we got was a speech that delivered many of the right statements, rhetoric and promises but was a bit light on detail and actions – probably to be expected of these kind of events? George opened by talking about his commitment to turning promises, hopes and aspirations into actions, all very commendable, but has he delivered on that? He talked about raising the profile of the city, attending lots of meetings and events all over the world and about the leadership role which he admitted he didn’t always get right. He also talked about Bristol as a prosperous city but also a city of contrasts, where not everyone feels the benefit of progress. There was a clear recognition that whilst we can hail and promote the success of Bristol we also need to recognise that in a prosperous city those with less who do not benefit from this prosperity are relatively poorer. Again, the rhetoric was certainly there, but what of actions? I was less convinced when it came to understanding quite what we were going to do differently to address problems of inequality, the detail was certainly lacking, although reference was made to the Mayoral Commissions, including the Fairness Commission and the need to take on board their recommendations.
George talked about housing, transport, jobs, economy and infrastructure, including some big projects like Filwood Green Business Park, Temple Quarter Enterprise Zone and of course, the Arena. Decisions about transport have probably created the greatest controversy in Bristol so far during George’s term of office, with residents parking and 20mph zones generating the most debate and criticism. I’m with George on the notion that he is there to take the difficult decisions and to make things happen that other leaders have been to hesitant to implement, and I’m with him on the need to do something about traffic and congestion. But I do think he has shied away from some of the tougher options, like Workplace Parking Levy and Congestion Charging, both of which could bring in the funding needed to pay for a real tram scheme in Bristol and which could make the biggest difference to congestion and air pollution in the city. These are difficult issues and challenging for business but need to be put back onto the agenda as part of a longer term strategy that puts people first in terms of accessibility rather than cars! Sadly on many of the big issues raised there were few solutions and little detail offered. I was left feeling like things hadn’t really moved on much from last year’s speech, but maybe I was expecting too much.
One area where we did see some real commitment was on the issue of devolution and the need for a combined authority for the Greater Bristol area. George threw down a challenge to his fellow leaders across the West of England, making it clear that there is a window of opportunity there for the taking, if we don’t gear up for this change it will be a major opportunity missed for the area and we’ll lose out compared to other cities. The changes proposed in Manchester are likely to be followed up in the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement, with new powers on transport, skills, homes and strategic planning all available if only we can get our act together round here. This means going beyond the trite statements about ‘working together’ that we all too often hear from council leaders in the surrounding authorities and instead those leaders need to accept that being part of a Greater Bristol city region is the way forward, with clear commitment across party lines and artificial boundaries. As George said – “You know it makes sense” – a good note to end his speech on!
Overall I was left feeling rather conflicted, positive about some elements of the debate and uncertain and unsure about other elements. The mayoral role has helped but not enough, yet? For me we are still stuck on short term plans and spend too little time on longer term, strategic planning. We try to affect the here and now, but ignore the bigger issues. We also pander to government initiatives rather than trying to impose our own agenda. I would like to see the promise of this new role pushing our city agenda with government rather than merely responding to government agendas and funding rounds – with a clear, long term plan, addressing the key issues locally we would have a platform to approach government from and a local agenda to pursue. The next year or so will be critical if we are to see the real change having an elected mayor could bring – over to you George to lead the way!