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In the second part of our interview, we speak to Mayor George Ferguson about some of the challenges facing Bristol and changing attitudes towards elected mayors, both in Bristol and internationally. Read the first part here.
How do you see the role and responsibilities of the Mayor from May 2016?
To build on what I hope will have been a solid start and to make sure we come together as one city: not one that is divided by politics, origin, wealth or health. I have encapsulated this in my recently reviewed and published vision for Bristol, which sets out where I think Bristol can get to. Clearly we have some big-ticket items to deliver, not least a well oiled integrated transport system and a much needed entertainment and events arena within Temple Quarter Enterprise Zone.
By 2016 we shall hopefully have established a new equilibrium following a period of the deepest cuts in UK local government, leading me to ask the question ‘what is local government for?’ To arrive at that state I decided to produce a three year budget. The most challenging corporate task has been to make the fundamental changes ever to arrive at that new normal if we are not to lose the ability to support many of the discretionary services which define the city. However my principal responsibility is to protect those who most need our support whilst regenerating the economy to get everyone who can into work.
To arrive at 2016 and beyond in a healthy state we need to motivate every individual and organisation in the city behind key objectives, and get everyone playing their part. From big government agencies working together more effectively, to individuals volunteering in their community, there are many ways a city can pull together to deliver some common aims with the Mayor playing a vital motivational role across all sectors and communities.
How have attitudes towards an elected mayor changed since you took up the post?
Attitudes certainly have changed. Apart from the most cynical and sceptical I really think most of Bristol would be loath to return to the old system.
However, while Bristol, uniquely amongst our major provincial cities voted for the mayoral model, and then took the radical step of voting for an independent mayor, there has been a growing realisation that we have laid a new system over an old constitution. 70 councillors from 4 political parties, with some notable exceptions, have generally treated the mayor as an interference to their normal way of doing things with excessive time and resources still being spent in council meetings with the attendant bureaucracy. There are 600 minuted member meetings a year, time that could and should be spent caring for and championing the needs of Bristol’s communities. So while there is an acceptance of the need for change in some quarters, we are far from achieving the level of change that will be necessary to streamline the political system. My hope is that a request for a boundary review to include a review of numbers of councillors may serve as a catalyst for fundamental change.
In these circumstances I have to balance my impatience for change with the need to maintain and build relationships as an independent mayor without a group to rely on for support. All this being said I think, whilst it may be difficult for party politicians to be able to say so openly, there is some real recognition of the difference a mayor can and does make.
Public reaction has been generally enthusiastic, or at least not agnostic!
Do you think other cities would benefit from moving to the elected mayoral model?
I am sure they would, for many of the reasons I’ve already covered, not only for the reason that worldwide, the term ‘mayor’ has currency that ‘council leader’ does not, but principally because there is nothing like the recognition and authority that comes with a city wide mandate rather than the internal party procedures by which a Council leader, elected by just one 35th of the city in Bristol’s case, emerges.
There is something of a global movement growing up around mayors and city leadership. I’ve recently met with both Bruce Katz1 and Benjamin Barber,2 two American opinion-formers who are writing about the fact that city leadership is direct, accountable, pragmatic and generally much more effective than national systems of government, which are often distant, politically polarised, and unyielding.
In England this rings true. Take recent national debates about energy policy, for example. National politicians give us a choice between protecting the consumer and controlling the market on the one hand, or on the other protecting business interests and allowing the market to rule. In Bristol, we are establishing our own energy company through which we intend to protect those most vulnerable from rising energy costs, whilst at the same time supporting entrepreneurial local businesses to take advantage of the low carbon economy. Pragmatic and non-partisan: the only test being what’s best for Bristol.
I write this on my return from Beijing and the EU/China Urbanisation Forum where Bristol is now seen by some as a pioneering city with which many Chinese city mayors would like to learn from and do business directly.
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