Since May 2019 I’ve had the pleasure of being one of the consorts of the lord mayor of Bristol. Prior to the Covid-19 lockdown I attended dozens of events with my friend councillor Jos Clark. At most of them at least one person would ask us what was the difference between the lord mayor and the mayor of Bristol?
Perhaps the best answer was given eight years ago by a previous Liberal Democrat lord mayor Peter Main, right at the start of the first term of the first directly mayor George Ferguson: “He’s the power and I’m the glory!”
It’s true that Jos does look rather glorious when wearing the full regalia of her ceremonial office. It’s also true that Marvin Rees has the political power in Bristol, too much of it in the hands of one person, in my opinion.
But what about the regional mayor, I hear some of you ask. Well, he also has lots of power but is timid in his use of it and is almost unknown, even among well networked movers and shakers.
For better or worse, most people have heard of city mayor Marvin Rees but few could name regional mayor Tim Bowles.
Visible leadership is supposed to be one of the advantages of having a directly elected mayor. People like to know who’s making the decisions. But they also say they expect accountability for those decisions.
Sadly, across the west of England we have an invisible mayor who over the last three years has declined to expose himself to any scrutiny from councillors drawn from Bristol, Bath & North East Somerset and South Gloucestershire.
While the mayor of Bristol is more visible, he is similarly disdainful of scrutiny and makes decisions that ride roughshod over majority opinion in the city. He’s cancelled plans for a city centre arena and poured millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money into a failing energy company.
I should confess that back in 2012 I was a lukewarm supporter of the switch to an elected mayor in Bristol and all of England’s other major cities.
I thought a network of civic leaders with popular mandates would rebalance government away from all powerful Westminster, where I sat at the time as an MP.
But only Bristol chose the model and since 2017 we’ve had the network of regional mayors, covering most of the metropolitan city regions of England. The mayor of Bristol is now a spare mayor and I and my Lib Dem colleagues in the city want to see the post abolished.
Complex public services in the city such as social care and special educational needs (both arguably rather neglected by mayor Rees) and other responsibilities such as parks and libraries would stand a chance of being run better if we draw on the talents of all the 70 city councillors.
But we want to go much further than just turning the clock back to 2012. We want to offer Bristol’s citizens the chance to have decisions made in their own localities with a network of Neighbourhood Councils.
These would be like the town and parish councils that are normal in the rest of the west of England, everywhere from Bradley Stoke to Radstock. People in places such as Brislington or Clifton and Hotwells would elect community councillors, who would have the power to raise money to spend on local priorities. There could also be Neighbourhood Plans, backed by a local referendum.
When I was minister for communities and local government, I streamlined the procedures for setting up new councils and Queens Park (of QPR football club fame) was the first new urban community council to be set up in London.
If I am elected as mayor of the west of England next year I will make myself accountable not only to the 190 councillors across the region’s three councils but will also have public question times everywhere from Southmead to Nempnett Thrubwell.
Visibility matters in politics but government leaders are more effective if they are transparent and accountable.
Stephen Williams is the Liberal Democrat candidate for regional mayor.
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