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Bristol study reveals mismatch in views on local democracy

bristolA study just released examines attitudes to the prospects for mayoral governance in Bristol ahead of last year’s mayoral elections. It’s part of the ongoing Civic Leadership Project involving academics from Bristol University and the University of the West of England which was set up to observe Bristol as a ‘living experiment in urban democracy’ since it bucked the national trend and voted to replace its cabinet system with an elected mayor.

What I found interesting is that it sought the opinions of those in leadership roles, recognising that civic leaders ‘operate at many geographical levels – from street block to an entire sub-region and beyond’. Respondents are split into three ‘realms of civic leadership’: the political (those in elected positions); the managerial/professional (those delivering public services in the public and third sector); and community and business (everyone else).

In summary the study states: ‘There is a mismatch in the views on the outgoing governance system and the new mayoral model, between civic leaders in the political realm and the views of civic leaders in managerial, community and business realms.’  The study shows that the outgoing cabinet system was regarded as flawed by the managerial and community leaders and they were optimistic that an elected mayor would bring improved leadership and decision-making.

In the run up to the referendum there were strong campaigns for and against an elected mayor.  At a purely anecdotal level it seemed to me the more party-politically active a person was the more likely they were to oppose an elected mayor, with concern about loss of democracy a frequently voiced objection.  However, reading the outcomes of this study what strikes me is the confidence that political leaders had in the governance of the city as it was under the cabinet system.

Around 55% of political leaders felt there was visible leadership of the city, while around 70% of the other two groups disagreed. Nearly 60% of politicians felt that city-wide views were well represented by the council, while amongst management and community leaders only around 20% and 30% respectively felt this was true. This kind of mismatch is reflected in almost every question put to the three groups and exposes how hugely out of step politicians are with the views of the rest of Bristol’s civic leaders.

The study shows some peculiar results, e.g. 45% of Bristol’s political leaders disagreed with the statement: ‘it is clear who is responsible for making decisions at the council’. Is it just me or is this quite astonishing? If nearly half of the people responsible for making decisions are unclear on who is responsible for making decisions, is it any surprise that decision-making has been so poor?

Meanwhile 44% of political leaders agreed with the statement: ‘I trust the council to make good decisions’.  I’m really hoping that these 44% are the ones who do know who’s making the decisions.  If not, one wonders if being a councillor involves a sort of blind faith that goodness is being churned out by an unseen deity ensconced in a committee room at city hall. Unsurprisingly nearly 70% of community and business leaders have no trust in the council’s decision making.

Ward data in the report clearly shows that the more affluent the ward the more positively an elected mayor is viewed and turnout in the referendum confirmed this. This phenomenon runs the risk that a mayor might devote more energy and resources to affluent wards in order to secure future votes, whilst neglecting areas of disadvantage.  I was disappointed, therefore, that only 51% of the political leaders agreed that ‘ward councillors provide an effective check on council leadership’.  Given the fears of a dictatorship and concerns over the potential loss of democracy (mayor Ferguson is already being accused of governance by press release), councillors need to be reminded that the mayor’s decisions can be overturned with a two thirds majority and this duty should be vigorously exercised if they feel he is making bad decisions for the city.

Running through the report are concerns over party politicking in Bristol with statements such as ‘far too much political in-fighting over many years between councillors and the political parties’ and ‘people are weary of a council where politicians fail to work together for the good of the city’.  Voting for an independent mayor by such a large majority was the equivalent of Bristolians saying a plague on all your houses to the political parties. However, with Labour refusing to join the mayor’s cabinet and Lib Dem councillors using the online comments pages of the local newspaper to claim credit for the mayor’s decisions, I’d say we have a long way to go yet before our political leaders catch up with the views of the rest of the city.

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