Author Archives: bristolcivicleadership

Understanding the choice in the Bristol referendum

Robin Hambleton

What is the nature of the choice facing the citizens of Bristol when they vote in the city governance referendum in May 2022? 

To answer this question, we need to take a quick look back.  In early 2012 the citizens of Bristol were invited to contemplate how they would like their city to be governed.  The Localism Act 2011 required ten large cities in England, including Bristol, to hold a public referendum giving citizens a choice between two civic leadership models.

Option 1) was to retain the, then existing, leader plus cabinet model of governance.  In this arrangement an existing elected councillor is chosen by the other elected councillors to be the leader, and this politician chairs a cabinet of senior councillors.

Option 2) presented a radical change.  The leader of the city, described as a mayor, would be directly elected by the voters and this politician would chair the cabinet of senior councillors. 

In spring 2012 there was a lively debate about the pros and cons of these two different governance options.  Campaigners supporting the mayoral model claimed that a directly elected mayor would be able to champion Bristol, promote positive change and deliver bold innovations in public policies for the city.  Opponents feared that a change to mayoral governance would weaken the role of elected local councillors and could lead to an over concentration of power in the hands of one individual.

What happened in 2012?

In the event, in the citywide referendum held on 3 May 2012, the citizens of Bristol decided to introduce a directly mayor model of city governance.  Just over 41,000 citizens voted in favour of this change, with almost 36,000 citizens opting for retention of the existing leader plus cabinet model.

Now, ten years later, the citizens of Bristol have an important opportunity to reconsider this decision.  In May 2022 they will be invited, once again, to decide how they wish to be governed, but the choice will not be the same.

Looking ahead to the referendum in May 2022

Because of legal requirements relating to referenda in the UK, Bristol citizens will again be presented with a binary choice.  However, the motion, passed by Bristol City Council on 7 December 2021 setting up this second referendum, rules out the option of returning to the leader plus cabinet model that existed in Bristol in 2012.

Instead, in May 2022 citizens will be invited to choose between: 1) Continuation of the directly elected mayor model of governance (hopefully reformed to take account of concerns expressed by opponents of the model), and 2) Reversion to a committee system of governance.  The committee system existed in Bristol, and in other councils across England, before the Local Government Act 2000.  In this arrangement councillors serve on committees that reflect the political balance of the city council.

Research on Bristol’s mayoral model of governance

In the summer of 2012 our two local universities – University of Bristol (UoB) and University of the West of England, Bristol (UWE) – launched a research project to assess the impact of the mayoral model on the governance of the city, and several policy reports have been published – in 2013, 2015 and 2020 available here:

This research demonstrates that the mayoral model has delivered many benefits for the city, but it also shows that the model can be improved.  In particular, the research has consistently suggested that the role of councillors within mayoral governance should be strengthened.

Direct election – the key issue to be decided

In his international book, Directly elected mayors in urban governance, David Sweeting, from the University of Bristol, explains how it can clarify understanding of the pros and cons of mayoral governance if attention is focussed the key feature of this model – direct election.

He explains how direct election has three consequences.  First, all the citizens living in a municipality participate directly in the process of deciding who is to lead the locality.  Second, the process produces a clearly identifiable, individual political leader.  Third, the direct election process creates a secure term of office until the next election, or at least until the activation of a recall procedure that would enable their removal from office.

Sweeting’s analysis explains how each of these three features has advantages and disadvantages.  For example, having a clear, identifiable leader can facilitate the creation of a vision for the city and it can provide a focus for accountability.  However, it can also overload the individual elected as mayor.

Forthcoming report

The Bristol Civic Leadership Project team is in the process of preparing a detailed report on The Bristol Referendum 2022.  This report, which thinks through the city governance options facing the city, will be published in March 2022.

Robin Hambleton is Emeritus Professor of City Leadership at the University of the West of England, Bristol.  He has carried out research on city governance in many countries and his latest book is Cities and Communities Beyond COVID-19. How local leadership can change our future for the better. (Bristol: Bristol University Press, 2020).

The end of Mayoral Governance in Bristol? What are they voting on at Full Council?

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Directly elected mayors in urban governance: impact and practice


David Sweeting has edited a wide-ranging, international book on directly elected mayors. Published by Policy Press in March 2017, under the title Directly elected mayors in urban governance: Impact and practice, this book draws on examples from Europe, the USA and Australasia to examine the impacts, practices and the lively debates about mayoral leadership in different cities and countries. The book advances international understanding of mayoral governance and contains several chapters discussing mayoral leadership in Bristol. To find out more click here.


Universities as place based leaders

Can universities be more active in contributing to civic leadership in the areas where they are located?  The Bristol Civic Leadership Project believes that they can, and Robin Hambleton wrote a short article for Times Higher Education on this topic.  Published on 3 November 2016, ‘Pulling their weight‘ suggests that the new initiative by UK universities to encourage them to become more engaged with their local communities, known as Leading Places, can learn from the experiences of American public universities.

Talking about mayors

This week David joined Alex for the first of his Policy Unpacked podcasts. The discussion focused on elected mayors. You can listen to the discussion here.

Outputs appearing elsewhere

We’ve appeared in various places around the blogosphere over recent months talking about mayors, local government and local democracy.

Here’s a round up of some of our activity.  Continue reading

Robin Hambleton on elected mayors and our project

A ‘Bristolian Boris’?

The BBC is continuing to provide coverage of the imminent arrival of an elected mayor for Bristol. You can find the most recent piece on their website here, including comments from Robin Hambleton.

Robin also contributed to BBC Radio4’s World at One feature on the Bristol mayoral election (30th October). He points out the merits of making the more ambitious move to a metro mayor and notes the international trend towards elected mayors.  You can listen here starting at 28m 05s.