Referendum vote to keep or scrap Bristol Mayor's role

December 29 2021
Referendum vote to keep or scrap Bristol Mayor's role

BRISTOL will go to the polls in 2022 to decide whether to scrap the mayoral system, after opposition councillors won a vote in City Hall.

A majority of elected members of Bristol City Council backed a motion in December to hold a legally binding second referendum, which will be held in May and offer Bristolians the choice of keeping the elected mayor's position, currently held by Labour's Marvin Rees (above), or scrapping it.

If the position was abolished the city would go back to the committee system of governance that was in place ten years ago, before George Ferguson became the city’s first directly elected mayor in November 2012. Mr Rees has already said he will stand down when his term of office ends in 2024.

It is estimated that it will cost the council roughly £700,000 to hold the referendum.

Critics of the mayoral system say it has put too much power in the hands of one person and undermined the role of local councillors, whereas opponents of the committee system say decision-making before the mayor was too slow and nothing got done.

The committee system saw full council appoint cross-party committees to make decisions on specific matters such as transport, but retain the power to set the annual budget and make other large decisions. A core executive of members of the majority party retained the right of veto.

The motion was brought by the Liberal Democrats with the support of the Green Party. After an impassioned debate, the motion passed with the support of almost all opposition members, with 41 votes in favour of holding a referendum next year against 24 votes from the Labour group.

Presenting the motion, Lib Dem councillor Alex Hartley pointed to “disasters” such as Bristol Energy and Bristol Arena as evidence the mayoral model was “not working as hoped”.

Bristol Energy lost nearly £50 million before it was broken up and sold last year. Full council voted in favour of an arena on Temple Island in 2016, but Mr Rees overruled the decision saying it should be in Filton instead.

Cllr Hartley said: “It is fundamentally wrong that one person can overrule the will of a majority of elected councillors as happened over the arena.

One person now effectively rules with absolute power."

But Labour group leader Steve Pearce said the motion and the debate amounted to ‘navel gazing’ at a time when the city was facing multiple crises, including a housing shortage, the Covid pandemic and the climate and ecological emergencies. 

This is the most important decade of human civilisation,” Cllr Pearce said.

We need clear and decisive action not the bargaining of parochial interests. 

Today we’ve been reduced to talking about expending energy, time and no small amount of treasure on belly-button fluff.”

By Amanda Cameron, Local Democracy Reporting Service