Firstly, let us not pretend that running a council is a simple and easy job. There is a squeeze on grants from Central Government, and, in some areas, extra responsibilities.
It is certainly the case that the reduction in grants, that at first was widely acknowledged to be necessary and was, for a number of years easily, absorbed by councils becoming more efficient, has now gone too far and presents a real challenge.
It is clearly also the case, though, that the present Labour administration in Bristol is failing to run things as well as they could. We are now well into their second year, so the inheritance and inexperience excuses are wearing thin. There are a number of symptoms, but are they all connected?
The first symptom is a seeming inability to understand what they are voting for. Cabinet and then Labour at full council voted for a budget proposal that clearly stated that Jubilee Pool would close, when what they claim they meant was that it would only close if negotiations with the operator broke down. Either way, it poses a genuine threat to a community that the administration then criticised for its campaigning efforts.
Then we have the ‘your neighbourhood consultation‘, which starts off by stating that full council in February voted through the massive library cuts. It did not. This is another example of the red team’s failure to read and understand their own paperwork.
The consultation on libraries specifically rules out options which the Labour administration now says they want to hear about! Huge publicity was given to parks becoming cost neutral, but that seems to have been abandoned in the light of reality, without ever formally being adopted or dropped.
We recently exposed the shocking case of the £278,000 destined for boosting the education of children in care, which has had to be sent back to Central Government because of local financial control incompetence. New financial ‘controls’ led to this disaster.
The new chair of the audit committee was not reassured when the mayor and chief executive could give no clear answer about other similar cases, and investigations are on the way.
There are plenty of other examples. After a genuine all-party committee sat for many months to come up with agreed measures to streamline council procedures, the mayor’s office then ripped up the work and instead tried to impose, with no notice, appalling constitutional changes that would, amongst other measures, ban all public questions of the mayor from councillors and the general public.
The political administration cost of the mayoral system was always a concern, but recently we have seen the abandonment of the all-party cabinet pledge, more paid political appointments, and, most recently, the addition of yet another Labour cabinet member adding to the bills.
The mayoral system, with far too much power in one set of hands, was seen to be a danger with the first mayor, but it is now becoming really exposed. We have nearly three years left to go of this already struggling regime: how low can things sink?
A colleague, turning out old papers, came across a fine example from many years ago of Labour arrogance at a council meeting. They ruled ‘out of order’ a subject that members of the public wanted discussed, purely because their overall majority allowed them to do so.
For many years, left-of-centre voters have shied away from Bristol Labour, even while supporting them nationally, because of their repeated failures while in charge. They were so desperate to get rid of the previous mayor that they voted in numbers for Rees. I would suggest that many will not do so again and in addition are questioning the whole mayoral system.
Gary Hopkins is a Liberal Democrat Councillor for the ward of Knowle.