Two minus one equals… none?

Why I won’t be voting to abolish the city mayor because we have a metro mayor

David Sweeting

Some have made the argument that as now Bristol has a metro mayor, there is no longer any need for a city mayor. That’s the opinion of George Ferguson, Bristol’s first directly elected mayor, Stephen Williams, former Lib Dem councillor, MP, and Minister, and Mark Weston, leader of Bristol’s Conservative group on the council. Why have a city mayor when the metro mayor can just as well speak up for Bristol?

However, the metro mayor occupies a precarious position, and no matter how effective and talented the people who occupy that post might be, they might not be around for very long. Two lessons from history support this view.

First, arrangements for sub-regional governance in England can be short-lived. In 1974 the Conservative government of the day created six Metropolitan County Councils in the West Midlands, Merseyside, Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire, South Yorkshire, and Tyne and Wear. It’s no coincidence that several of those same places have also recently created metro mayors. Only 12 years later the next Conservative government of the day abolished them. A similar fate awaited Labour’s Regional Assemblies. Created in a wave of optimism in 1998, they were all gone by 2010, abolished by the last Labour government of that period. The message is clear: regional and sub-regional arrangements in England don’t last, and I wouldn’t want to bet on any of the current combined authorities surviving the whims of successive central governments.

Second, arrangements for sub-regional governance in the Bristol area are fragile. The West of England Combined Authority (WECA) comprises three of the four Councils that Used to Be Avon (or CUBA, as the local governance in-joke goes), minus North Somerset, who didn’t want to join, despite their leader signing the original devolution agreement. Avon County Council was created in 1974 by the same Act of Parliament that created the six metropolitan counties that were abolished in 1986. Avon lasted a little longer, until 1995. It was abolished by the Conservative government of the day as part of its review of local government, at least in part at the behest of the councils in Bristol and Bath, fed up with having the artificial Avon County Council above them. Sound familiar? How long before the constituent authorities get fed up with working with WECA, and perhaps start to agitate for its abolition?

I’m all in favour of a metro mayor for the West of England. They clearly perform a vitally important strategic governance role for the area. What I’m not in favour of is saying that because we’ve got a metro mayor, we don’t need a city mayor. By all means vote to abolish the city mayor if you don’t think it’s a good idea – and there are many strong arguments for and against here –  but my view is that those arguments don’t include because we’ve now got a metro mayor. It’s perfectly possible that if we vote to remove one mayor, we’ll end up with none at all, because we might not have a metro mayor for very long. And who would speak up for Bristol then?   

The Bristol Referendum 2022: Thinking through the options is available at www.bristolcivicleadership.net.

David is senior lecturer in urban studies at the University of Bristol

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