So, we’re going to have a directly elected mayor. I think this is great news and I was active in promoting a ‘yes’ vote, but it has made me think about what this could mean for Bristol, how it has come about, whether we have made the right choice and how best to play this ‘joker’ card we’ve been played.
When I woke up to Radio 4 last Friday morning to hear that four of the 10 ‘chosen’ cities had said ‘no’ to a mayor I felt a certain amount of relief: we weren’t going to be the odd one left out, so if Bristol did vote ‘no’, as I thought was a distinct possibility, it wouldn’t be quite so bad.
Bristol is a fascinating city. Full of passion, a certain amount of chaos, very strong communities each with very independent thinking and identities, lots of very interesting characters, a natural though often passive desire and ability for collaboration. But it can be frustratingly conservative (with a small ‘c’, obviously) and demure when it comes to self-promotion.
So why did it buck the trend and vote ‘yes’ when all the others voted ‘no’?
Was it lured into a trap which the other cities were clever and savvy enough to avoid? Or has it demonstrated its innate entrepreneurial spirit, that’s been there for 1,000 years but generally manifests as quiet industriousness?
If we’d been the only city being given the opportunity to vote for a mayor, would it have made any difference to the result?
I’m not an expert on crowd dynamics or how individual votes manifest as collective decisions, but I think that Bristol has asserted itself – independently of what is going on elsewhere – as somewhere with ambition, but a city not to be messed with.
I don’t think it took too kindly to Cameron, Osborne and Heseltine popping down to rally voters – I suspect there may have been a larger ‘yes’ majority if they’d stayed away.
Bristol is coming out of the closet – or, perhaps, re-emerging from retirement.
So what next?
There was clearly a lot of angst about not knowing either about the referendum or what it meant and before we get deeply into party or personality politics, I think the city should come together to think about what it really wants for the next four, and even 25, years. We need to engage the population in local democracy.
Bristol will never be, as was feared by many in the ‘no’ camp, a poodle of Cameron or the next (Labour?) government. So we shouldn’t wait for candidates to make offers we should stimulate debate now.
The published ’2050 Initiative’ paints an exciting vision for the future so we need to make sure our young people are equipped and inspired to achieve and exploit that.
We have some of the most exciting technology, creative and low-carbon innovation happening in our world-class universities, start-ups and small and medium sized businesses.
We also have significant issues in social exclusion, deprivation and variable education all of which affect social wellbeing which in turn affects economic wellbeing, and vice versa.
This will take pretty heroic leadership to pull all this together. And visionary leadership with the need to rise above classic local party politics.
Bristol has made great progress on all these fronts over the last 18 months, a lot of it demonstrated through the vision of the West of England’s Local Enterprise Partnership, for which the civic and business leaders involved should take great personal credit, but a step change is needed for the Bristol’s ‘next mile’.
The opportunity is huge. We can speculate on whether there will be big injections of cash or not, but at the very least we should get a lot of political spotlight and we must rise to that.
If we can use this opportunity to promote what is great about Bristol we will help ourselves enormously. Whether it’s increased tourism, more talent coming to Bristol (many of our exciting young and growing creative and technology businesses struggle to attract experienced engineers or directors because Bristol is relatively unknown) national or foreign businesses setting up home in greater Bristol we will all gain.
More jobs for some means more disposable income and therefore more spending and thus jobs for others which in turn means less unemployment, less social issues and a more positive environment. We have common objectives here and we need to work together to create a better common understanding of what the city needs before we identify the right person to lead that.
It’s just like hiring a new employee into an organisation, specify the role and person descriptions, then advertise. A recruiter does not sit there waiting for potential employees to come and sell themselves and pick the best of what could be a bad bunch.
Bristol is a truly entrepreneurial city and an entrepreneur not only has the idea but makes it happen.
The city needs to make the elected mayor system work, so let’s all engage in the process and decide what kind of person we want to lead Bristol in its next phase of growth.