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In the first of this two part interview, we speak to Mayor George Ferguson about the successes of his first year as the first elected mayor of Bristol, what the biggest changes have been and ask how his role as Mayor differs from that of a Council Leader. Read part two here.
What would you say has been your biggest success?
Securing European Green Capital status was of course a high point: it fits my agenda like a glove, but was very much on the back of the work of previous administrations and a variety of Bristol organisations to whom I give credit. I think the biggest change has been to create some excitement about Bristol’s potential both home and abroad, however I’ll indulge with a list of some tangible achievements in the first year:
What has been the biggest change to Bristol as a result of having a directly elected mayor?
The mood. Bristol has suffered from frequent changes of leadership over the past decade, resulting in citizen disengagement, and local media cynicism about Bristol’s ability to deliver. Fostering an environment of enthusiasm and optimism for the future in face of major budget cuts has been key. There is now a much higher level of engagement across the city, and it is a prime aim of my second year to reinforce that.
What have you been able to do that would have been more difficult as a council leader?
Citizen engagement and decision making. I am very visible and accessible, and have instigated Q&A sessions, both face to face and across all media. Well over 1,000 people applied to attend my State of the City address to mark my first year. There has been much greater media interest and involvement and citizens identify with their elected mayor in a way they never did with Council leaders.
Securing agreement to the change in the Council election cycle. Any Council Leader trying to introduce this would run the risk of being seen as self serving, while the mayor’s term of office is fixed.
Access to government has been greatly strengthened, with No. 10 and across all ministries. Whilst this has been really encouraging, I will keep pushing for greater recognition in Westminster of the Mayoral role and greater autonomy in terms of local decisionmaking.
Authority and recognition at an international level.
What single power that you don’t currently have would allow you to make the greatest change in Bristol?
Greater fiscal autonomy. Fiscal autonomy for cities is the holy grail. I’ll continue to push strongly, along with my Core Cities colleagues and London as part of the recently launched ‘City Centred’ campaign, to give greater control over our own destinies. I have been comparing experiences with US cities who have control over sales tax, incomes tax and property taxes and get to keep the profits of their success. Centre for Cities has been in the forefront of this movement to decentralise what is still one of the most centralised systems of Government in the developed world.
We recognise Cities as the engines of growth and without devolution of powers we shall fail to realise our full potential and drag behind competitors in Europe, the US and the BRIC economies.
More specifically, cities need much greater control over the areas of public policy that are critical to the success of the city. Our Bristol and Bath city region needs a fully integrated transport authority for example, and I fail to understand why we have a system that gives London a set of powers over public transport that the rest of us are denied. Similarly welfare, and employment and skills systems in our cities are deeply fragmented. Some are delivered from Whitehall, some are delivered locally through the Council, some by autonomous public bodies or the private sector. It is complex, inefficient and not very accountable. A Mayor representing the whole city has a duty to align all these various organisations towards a more joined up approach.
How has your relationship with central government changed over the last 12 months?
The level of access Bristol has into government and international bodies has markedly improved.
However many parts of government still persist in treating local government as a subsidiary of central government. They have abolished the National Audit Office and told councils they are responsible for their own audit regimes – yet many government departments seem to think the council is accountable to them.
There is some frustration in being treated by some politicians and civil servants as ‘local government’ rather than part of the whole city and regional system. I seek recognition for Bristol as a key part of UK PLC.
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