The topic of how Bristol should be governed is generating interest among some at the moment. However I suspect that, despite my best efforts, many of my wider family will not vote in the referendum on May 3.
They are simply not interested – they are more worried about their jobs and their household bills as they seek to survive the economic “recovery”. They are certainly not obsessed by what colour trousers a mayor might wear as some appear to be.
I won’t be voting either. In my case not by choice but because a Mayor for Bristol will only cover the boundaries of Bristol as last changed almost 50 years ago, not the real boundaries of Bristol as an economic entity in the 21st century.
As a result, despite being born, bred and educated in Bristol, and travelling to work in the city just like tens of thousands of other “outsiders” every day (while similar numbers of “insiders” travel the other way), I will not get a vote, nor if there is a Yes vote, will I get a vote in an ensuing election.
Perversely, however, I will be able to run for Mayor if I chose to do so!
This brings me to why I have joined the No campaign. For a start the proposal Mayor system is the wrong size, the Elected Mayoral trousers that Bristol is being sold are not tailored to fit the real economic city. Instead it is based on Local Authority lines last redrawn by a nameless bureaucrat in 1966, the last of 10 boundary changes as the city gradually expanded from the Corporation created in the Victorian era.
It will fail to include major residential expansions in places like Bradley Stoke and Portishead, it will exclude the aerospace industry at Filton and the future redevelopment of Filton Airfield, the Science Park at Emerson’s Green, the port facilities at Royal Portbury, the retail facilities at Cribbs Causeway, the key rail transport hub at Parkway, the list goes on.
If we want 21st-century governance we need it to cover the 21st-century city, not some artefact from a different era half a century ago. The transport problems that damage Bristol don’t end at some dotted line on a map, and the solutions won’t either. Vague promises from government that this wider governance “might” happen at some point in the future IF it is asked for and IF you vote for the flawed version now, simply doesn’t cut it.
Almost every example of a Mayor system anywhere in the world appears to have been wheeled out to demonstrate why the very specific model proposed for Bristol will work despite each having crucial differences.
For example, Barcelona has been used repeatedly in pro-Mayor circles to demonstrate how a directly elected mayor can have a major effect on improving city performance. This is despite the fact that Barcelona’s mayor is selected from a list provided by the political party that gets the most votes in the proportional representation system used in Barcelona.
Another element of Barcelona’s governance that tends to be overlooked by pro-Mayor supporters is its system of decentralisation. Barcelona is divided into Districts, governed by District Councils responsible for making decisions affecting those districts. For many living within Barcelona, it is this implementation of real localism rather than the false “do as we say” localism like that being handed down by London, that has contributed to the city’s success.
The Mayoral system being proposed for Bristol makes no reference to decentralisation of this nature. Instead it looks to hand down control from London on condition that Bristol centralises its local decision-making into the hands of one individual. Centralisation disguised as decentralisation.
Many pro-Mayor supporters applaud this, welcoming the ability of an elected mayor to “get things done”. This ability to “get things done” could well mean that a Labour mayor in 2008 would have been able to push through Labour’s Parks and Green Spaces Strategy forcing the sell-off of green spaces across the city with only 50% of the revenues going back into improving the surviving green spaces.
A Liberal Democrat mayor would have been able to push through the building of a Bus Rapid Transit Route along the Bristol to Bath Railway Path, one of the most popular pedestrian and cycling routes in the country.
A Conservative mayor would have been able to push through even deeper cuts to public services – especially if they had implemented Councillor Abraham’s idea of halving the number of councillors, meaning that only the support of 12 councillors would be needed to force through any budget cuts.
Arguably, what is needed in Bristol is not somebody with the power to push through proposals regardless of their merits but the development of more efficient and effective evidence-based cross-party scrutiny to ensure higher quality decision making in the first place, rather than shoddy ill-thought out proposals that generate opposition and waste time and money. Fire prevention is always cheaper than fire fighting, and far less damaging.
An alternative view for why cities elsewhere in the world are generally more successful than in England is because they are not nannied by the centre in the same way that London imposes itself on cities like Bristol and Newcastle. Britain is the most centralised state in the world after New Zealand. London cannot stop itself telling Bristol how to run itself, instead of getting out of the way and letting Bristolians get on with it. This is nanny-state localism!
However, attempts to expand the debate to look at what type of local decision-making powers a city like Bristol needs to emulate cities like Copenhagen, Barcelona, Frankfurt and Malmo, with or without an elected mayor, are often dismissed as “not being an option on the table”. This is despite the relevant legislation making it clear that City Deals regarding decision-making powers and structures are indeed separate from the decision to choose to have an elected mayor.
The reality is that Bristolians are being asked to vote for a system that even some of its most vocal supporters know is not the solution that Bristol really needs, and to run an election for candidates that have largely failed to identify themselves, who will have powers as yet unknown, with no easy route to undo the process if Bristolians find they have made a mistake.
That is not democratic decision making – this is akin to betting on a horse race without knowing the horse and riders or even what course they will be running on. A bookie might take the shirt off your back but the government wants your trousers too! Whatever colour they might be.
Tony Dyer is a Green Party member of the Bristol Says No campaign