Tomorrow (Tuesday 7th December) City Councillors will debate and hold a vote on a motion which will potentially pave the way for a referendum on changing the system of governance (how decisions are made) in Bristol away from the system of a directly elected mayor to an alternative system. The motion as presently worded (and things can change in the process of council proceedings) if successful will force a referendum on a change from the directly elected mayoral model towards a committee system of governance. Referendums in the United Kingdom are limited by law to offer clear and distinct questions, often meaning binary choices, hence why the motion is worded as a simple choice between ‘whether to retain the mayoral model or change to a committee system’. There are other alternative systems of governance, which may be discussed, but any referendum will need to offer a choice between what we have (the elected mayor system), and an alternative. The various political parties may prefer different alternatives, some may vote to retain the current mayoral model, whilst the others who wish to move away from it will have to agree on which alternative, they wish to put to the people in a referendum vote, and then it will need to be agreed by a majority of votes of members of the full council to force a referendum.
So what changes are being suggested?
The Localism Act 2011 paved the way for councils to explore different avenues of governance, and there are three basic options.
- Stick with the mayoral model and change the informal governance arrangements to address some of its perceived failings. At present many councillors feel excluded from a significant part of the business of the council in terms of being involved in policy development and decision making. Informal changes to existing procedures and processes and reform of overview and scrutiny might give councillors a stronger mechanism to both hold the council leadership (the elected mayor) to account and have greater say in informing how decisions are made. The form that such changes would take is unpredictable and would probably not satisfy those councillors keen for a more reliable and tangible role.
- Move back to a Cabinet and Leader model: Originally introduced as a counter to criticisms of the committee model by the Local Government Act 2000 The Cabinet and leader model is the most common form of governance in UK councils and was the system Bristol had before the introduction of an elected mayor in 2012. For some councils this means that individual members of the cabinet have decision making powers; whilst in other councils’ decisions must be made collectively by the whole cabinet. Cabinet is led by a leader, who is elected by full council on a four yearly basis, or a term determined by the council itself. The leader will usually be the leader of the largest party on the council (chosen by a vote of their party group, all councillors elected by the majority party). Within this system councils need to ensure that they have an overview and scrutiny committee through which the leader and cabinet can be held to account for their decisions. If the system of overview and scrutiny is not strong, opposition and backbench councillors can often feel excluded from the decision-making process. This system tends to be most stable if there are majority parties, whereas if there is more political diversity or if political majorities are slim there is a risk of significant political churn and change with leadership switching around. This is something many will attest that happened in Bristol before the Mayoral model, but it is fair to say that this would be attributable to the voting system in the city at the time, where the city elected a third of its councillors at a time, meaning a near annual turnover and change in the composition of the council which had huge knock-on effects for who led the city year to year. However during the term of George Ferguson the Independent first elected mayor of Bristol the system of being elected by thirds was abolished with the council moving to ‘all up’ elections every four years, thus removing a huge amount of the risk of this churn and instability in the future.
- Move to a Committee system: If opposition parties are successful in their vote and a subsequent referendum confirms that Bristol’s voters agree with a change the City would move to governance using a committee system. In this system councillors are divided into politically balanced committees that make decisions. Due to this broad involvement councils with committee systems which include all councillors in decision making there is no requirement to have an overview and committee system, although many councils do still opt to have one or more. The nature of the committee system gives a broader and louder voice to all councillors, although as committee places are given out on a proportional basis, it may be that stand alone independent councillors may find themselves outside of committees, although usually councils make efforts to include them.
So, the choice at present that councillors will discuss and vote on is between our current system, a directly elected mayor, and a committee system. The debate and vote will be held during Full Council which itself begins at 3pm tomorrow. The result of which is no foregone conclusion (although many would assume opposition parties perceive they have enough votes to pass the motion). However, things can change, motions can be amended (if agreed by all four parties), and councillors can change their minds or choose to abstain meaning the vote could be very close.
Let’s hope for an interesting and constructive debate.
Dr Thom Oliver is a member of the Bristol Civic Leadership Project, an independent research study involving academics from the University of Bristol and University of the West of England, Bristol which has studied governance across the city since 2012. This short explainer piece has been written independently of the study and aims to offer a short nonpartisan update ahead of tomorrow’s debate and motion. If the vote is successful to hold a referendum, the BCLP team will be feeding into the wider debate across the city through several channels.