New report scrutinises Bristol referendum options that will decide how council is run

Media Relations Team, 07 March 2022

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Two UWE Bristol students seated on the grass at College Green.

A report published today explores the pros and cons of the Bristol City Council leadership options ahead of the referendum in May, which will determine whether Bristol continues to have an elected mayor.

The report, written by researchers at the University of Bristol and the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol) as part of The Bristol Civic Leadership Project, discusses the advantages and disadvantages of the two options – keeping the mayoral system of decision-making or replacing it with a committee system.

It gives details of how each system works and looks at what are seen to be the pros and cons of each against themes such as leadership, accountability, stability, and representation.

But the report also questions whether the committee approach was the right second option for voters to be given, rather than another alternative – returning to the leader and cabinet member model.

While the report says the referendum presents a “huge opportunity for positive reform” whichever option is chosen, it suggests that more consultative consideration should have been given to all the possible alternatives in order to decide the most appropriate two options for the referendum.

To ensure the best version of whichever system is chosen prevails after voters go to the polls on Thursday, 5 May, the report authors recommend creating a governance commission tomake recommendations on the design of the system that the citizens of Bristol choose.

The commission could, the report argues, help ensure Bristol’s system of governance is able to tackle current and future policy challenges such as recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic, responding to the climate change crisis, and addressing growing social inequality.

Lead author Dr David Sweeting, Senior Lecturer in Urban Studies at the University of Bristol, said: “The way our city governance is organised has a major impact not just on whether the city council is able to be effective in meeting the many complex challenges now facing Bristol, but also on the democratic vitality and inclusiveness of decision-making in the city. 

“We hope the study will be helpful to citizens ahead of the referendum as well as useful for those involved in progressing the design of the system of governance following the referendum.”

The Bristol Civic Leadership Project is a research collaboration which began 10 years ago following the introduction of a mayoral system of governance. As well as drawing on detailed study of developments in Bristol, the report incorporates research on governance in other cities, including those that have also held a referendum on mayoral governance.

Co-author Dr Thom Oliver, UWE Bristol Senior Research and Business Development Manager, added: “This important debate is not just one for politicos and academics; the decision Bristolians make will have profound and far-reaching implications for local democracy - from who leads the city and actually makes decisions, to how they are held to account outside of elections. So, we are encouraging wide and robust debate of the choices being offered in this referendum, and hope our report can offer a framework for further and constructive consideration ahead of the public vote in May.”

Last December Bristol councillors voted in favour of holding a referendum in May 2022 following a legally binding motion put forward by the Liberal Democrats. Residents voted for the city’s first elected mayor in 2012 and Labour’s Marvin Rees currently holds the role.

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