Author Archives: davidsweeting

Economic growth Swedish style

Robin Hambleton originally published this piece in Local Government Chronicle on 30/9/22

Sweden’s very strong system of local government helps it deliver far better economic growth than the UK, writes the emeritus professor of city leadership at the University of the West of England, Bristol.


Robin Hambleton, emeritus professor of city leadership at the University of the West of England, Bristol

If central government wants to bring about strong economic growth whilst also levelling up the country it should be drawing lessons from countries that have already done this.

An excellent example is provided by Sweden – a prosperous country that has for the past 20 years or so operated at around 12%-20% above the average prosperity level for OECD countries.

How does Sweden compare with the UK?

OECD figures on productivity per head show Sweden’s economic performance is far better than the UK. Thus, in 2021 the Swedish GDP per hour worked was 107 from a 2015 baseline of 100, compared with the UK’s 103.

Sweden also outperforms the UK on a whole raft of indicators relating to tackling climate change.  For example, OECD environmental indicators show that in 2020 the Swedish greenhouse gas emission per capita was 4.5 tonnes of CO2 which compares with a figure of six tonnes for the UK.

Most important, income inequality in Sweden is much lower than in the UK. OECD data on the Gini coefficient, an internationally respected measure of income inequality, shows the UK, with a figure of 0.37 (in 2019), is one of the most unequal countries in Europe, whereas Sweden, with a figure of 0.28 (in 2020), is one of the most equal.

Zarah Sultana, Labour MP for Coventry South, attracted headlines in April when she issued an eye-catching tweet noting that “there are now more foodbanks in Britain than McDonalds restaurants”.

She was correct and, sad to say, the situation is now even more troubling. A House of Commons Library research briefing published in July indicates that there are now well over 2,500 foodbanks in the UK. This is close to double the total number of McDonald’s locations, which stands today at a little under 1,400.

What can we learn from a society that is outperforming the UK on all fronts, a society that has no need for food banks?

Insights from Swedish local government

Sweden has a strong state that intervenes boldly in society to improve the quality of life. Interestingly, the central state is relatively small when compared with the local state – the main job of providing public services is rightly seen as being the role of local government.

As the Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions (SALAR) (equivalent to the Local Government Association) points out: “Since local self-government makes it possible to design services in different ways, it is possible to find flexible solutions that are appropriate for a particular municipality or county council.”

Local self-government, including the right to tax, is enshrined in the Swedish constitution. This ensures central government cannot ride roughshod over the heads of local voters.

Local authorities in Sweden have immense fiscal power – they raise around 70% of their revenue from local taxes, including a local income tax. This proportion compares with around 50% for English local authorities raised via the council tax.

There is, of course, no question of the Swedish central state capping the tax raising powers of elected local authorities. That would be instantly ruled out as unconstitutional.

The Swedish justification for very strong local government is twofold. The political argument is that powerful elected local authorities can represent local people and act as a robust barrier against national authoritarian rule.

The managerial argument stems from a desire to deliver really cost-effective public services. Why burden citizens with all the costs of a massive, over centralised state when elected local authorities can do most things for themselves?

The Swedish system not only delivers outstanding services, it also enjoys an impressive level of democratic legitimacy. Voter turnout in recent UK local elections has been in the region of 31% to 39%. In Sweden voter turnout in local elections in recent years has been over 80%, although they take place at the same time as national elections.

Lessons for the UK

The evidence from Sweden demonstrates that strong local authorities can play a major role in tackling the pressing challenges that societies now face – including the cost-of-living crisis, the climate emergency, and the importance of including excluded groups in social and economic recovery from the devastation imposed by covid.

Three lessons for the UK emerge from Swedish experience.

First, the international evidence, not just from Sweden, shows that really strong local governments can play a pivotal role in meeting the complex challenges local communities across the world now face.

Second, if economic growth and levelling up are to be delivered, the UK state needs to intervene in an intelligent way that is responsive to the different needs of different places. This means giving the political and fiscal power of all elected local authorities in the UK a truly transformational boost.

Third, an independent constitutional convention on the governance of the UK should be set up as soon as possible.

It should examine the way power has been removed from localities over the years, take evidence from civil society, trade unions, businesses, voluntary organisations and public service leaders, learn from local democracy abroad, and set out bold proposals to rebalance the local/central power structure of our country.

As Sweden shows, it is not difficult to identify how to improve the social, economic and environmental performance of the UK. What is needed is political will.

Robin Hambleton, emeritus professor of city leadership, the University of the West of England, Bristol. His latest book, Cities and Communities Beyond Covid-19: How Local Leadership Can Change Our Future for the Better, was published in 2020.

Greg Clark should return to his old devolution diagnosis

Robin Hambleton published this piece in Local Government Chronicle on 26/7/22

The new levelling up secretary’s 2003 analysis of over-centralisation in the UK could be used to make a lasting mark on the future governance of our country, writes Robin Hambleton, emeritus professor of city leadership at the University of the West of England, Bristol.

I send congratulations to Greg Clark on his appointment as secretary of state for levelling up, housing and communities earlier this month. For those of us who care about local democracy in our country the good news is that, early in his career, Mr Clark demonstrated a well-honed and sophisticated understanding of the dangers of centralising too much power in Whitehall.

In 2003, when he was Director of Policy for the Conservative party, he co-wrote, with James Mather, a blistering attack on Labour’s centralised approach to government. Their report, Total Politics. Labour’s Command State, provides a lucid analysis of the four main drivers of centralisation: targets imposed from Whitehall, centrally controlled funding, bureaucratic audit and inspection, and rigid terms and conditions.

Lost wisdom

Clark and Mather concluded that it was essential to create local communities where: ‘Local government is directly accountable to ordinary people, not lost in the complexities of Whitehall’ (p. 100). Sounds good.
The bad news is that, when he was communities’ secretary in 2015-16, Mr Clark seemed to lose sight of the wisdom articulated by his younger self.

In practice, and this was startling to witness, he presided over, what can only be described as, an extraordinary super-centralisation of power in Whitehall – one that has not only ripped power away from ‘ordinary people’, but also landed local leaders in a bewilderingly complex process of ongoing, and entirely wasteful, negotiations of ‘complexities’ with civil servants in Whitehall.

Take the misnamed Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016. Those involved in setting up the new ‘combined authorities’ in 2017, and ever since, were required to engage in the preparation of Parliamentary Orders documenting, in mind-boggling detail, how each combined authority would operate.

Devolution in name only

These new arrangements, and the whole ‘devolution deal’ approach that Mr Clark promoted, extended ministerial control over the minute details of how individual places in particular parts of England would be governed. It made the Blair Labour Government’s approach to local government of the 2000s appear almost entirely hands off.

The central problem with the Conservative government’s approach to devolution in England during this last ten years or so is that it is not, in fact, devolution at all. On the basis of their own unpublished preferences, ministers have been picking and choosing which localities are to benefit from these various deals. Ministers decide the criteria, ministers decide the content of each deal, and ministers decide what funding will flow to the selected areas. To suggest that this model of decision-making has anything to do
with devolution represents a misuse of the English language.

Various academic studies have shown that this super-centralisation of decision-making in Whitehall, which is entirely out of step with other western democracies, has not only done great damage to local government, but also paved the way for central government practices that border on the corrupt.

For example, it was claimed by ministers that the Towns Fund, announced in 2019, and the Levelling Up Fund, launched in 2021, were designed to allocate billions of pounds to localities selected on the basis of local need. However, independent academic analysis by, for example, Chris Hanretty at the University of London, demonstrates, in detail, how ministers took decisions that were, in practice, biased to favour Conservative marginal seats.

Rebalancing power

His important paper, ‘The pork barrel politics of the Towns Fund’, published in the respected academic journal, Political Quarterly, last year concluded that:

‘The findings call into question ministers’ commitment, under the Nolan principle, to take decisions “impartially, fairly and on merit, using the best evidence and without discrimination or bias.”’(1)

This finding is explosive. Go past the diplomatic academic language and recognise that rigorous academic research demonstrates that Conservative ministers clearly did not act impartially and that, moreover, they paid scant regard to scientific evidence relating to social needs.

Whilst the title of his department now no longer includes the words ‘local government’, a stain that will remain on the Conservative Party until the department is renamed, the most important challenge now facing Mr Clark is to consider how to level up, or rebalance, power between local and central government.

The international evidence shows that countries with very strong systems of local governance have coped far better with current challenges, including the COVID-19 pandemic, than centralised states. I explore this theme in my recent book, Cities and Communities Beyond Covid-19. How Local Leadership Can Change Our Future for the Better, and I also explain how to rebalance power in the UK.

The uncertainties posed by the current Conservative Party leadership contest certainly provide troubling challenges for Mr Clark. But he has an opportunity. I encourage him to revisit his 2003 clear-sighted analysis of local/central relations and take steps to bolster the political and fiscal power of all elected local authorities in the UK.

1) Hanretty C. (2021) ‘The pork barrel politics of the Towns Fund’, Political Quarterly, Vol. 92 (1), 7-13.

Robin Hambleton is Emeritus Professor of City Leadership at the University of the West of England, Bristol. His latest book, Cities and Communities Beyond Covid-19. How Local Leadership Can Change Our Future for the Better, was published in 2020.

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

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

Elected mayors deliver ‘direct democratic accountability’ academic claims

Robin Hambleton

Article first published on Bristol Live on 18 March 2022

In a referendum on 5 May 222, Bristol citizens will make an important decision about the way our city is governed. 

They will be asked to choose between retaining the existing directly elected mayor model of governance, which was introduced in 2012, or to opt for a committee model of governance, which was last used in Bristol in 2000.

What does the experience of cities abroad tell us about the value of directly electing a city leader?

In some democracies, for example, the USA, Canada, Japan and New Zealand, directly elected mayors have been a central feature of local government for over a century. 

More interesting is the fact that, over the last thirty years or so, a growing number of other countries, including Germany, Hungary, Italy, Poland, and Slovakia, have chosen to discard earlier models of decision-making and introduce directly elected mayors for all their local authorities. 

Why is the mayoral model of city governance rising in popularity across the world?

Reformers in these various countries explain that directly elected mayors have been introduced because they can provide highly visible, strong, and accountable leadership.  Their experience tells them that the direct election process can strengthen local democracy and provide local communities with a leadership advantage. 

But what, exactly, are the benefits of direct election?  Here, by drawing on my international research on city governance, I highlight three closely related arguments that have proved to be persuasive in these different countries.

First, direct election delivers direct democratic accountability.  A simple question arises for Bristol citizens: Do you want to choose the leader of your city, or would you prefer to have somebody else choose your leader for you?

When voting directly for a city mayor each citizen decides who is going to represent their interests. In addition, under the mayoral model, all citizens of Bristol retain the direct power to remove a mayor who does not deliver for them. 

Second, direct election delivers unparalleled legitimacy to lead.  As part of my research on how to improve city leadership I have interviewed many directly elected mayors in different countries, including two who have also served as a council leader in England before they were elected as a mayor.

Sir Peter Soulsby, Mayor of Leicester since 2011, and Sir Steve Bullock, Mayor of Lewisham (2002-2018), both explained to me that the process of direct election meant that, as mayor, they were seen by all stakeholders in an entirely different light.  They were no longer seen as ‘leader of the council’ but as the authoritative ‘leader of the city’.

Drawing on their direct experience of both roles, they stressed that the legitimacy provided by direct election was far superior to the legitimacy provided by councillors deciding who should be the leader of the council.

This is important because direct election enhances the soft power of the city leader.  It boosts their ability to bring stakeholders together from inside and outside the city council in efforts to address the challenges facing the city.

Third, direct election enhances leadership effectiveness.  I document many examples of successful mayoral leadership from cities around the world in my book on Leading the Inclusive City. 

One of these is Freiburg, Germany, a city that has established itself as a world leader in how to promote green values and cultivate wise decision-making relating to city development.  The city, long recognised as a foundational player in the creation of the Green Party in the 1970s, has a directly elected mayor. 

Under mayoral leadership Freiburg has developed a far-sighted land/use transport strategy, one that pioneered the 15-minute neighbourhood, meaning that most essential services are available to people without the need to use a private car.

I encourage all Bristol citizens to vote in the referendum in May.  This will be an unusual visit to the polls because the decision we are asked to make is not about individual candidates or political parties.  Rather, it concerns how we want to govern ourselves.  In my view the arguments in favour of retaining the direct election of our city leader, with appropriate checks and balances, are compelling.

Robin Hambleton is Emeritus Professor of City Leadership at the University of the West of England, Bristol.

He is a co-author of a new report from the Bristol Civic Leadership Research Project on the governance of Bristol:

Sweeting D., Hambleton R., and Oliver T. (2022) The Bristol referendum 2022. Thinking through the options. School for Policy Studies, University of Bristol.

The Bristol referendum 2022: Thinking through the options

The co-authors of this contribution are members of the Bristol Civic Leadership Research Project: David Sweeting, Senior Lecturer in Urban Studies at the School for Policy Studies, University of Bristol; Robin Hambleton, Emeritus Professor of City Leadership at the University of the West of England, Bristol; and Thom Oliver, Associate Lecturer, University of the West of England, Bristol.

In a referendum on 5 May 2022, the citizens of Bristol will make an important decision about the way our city is governed. 

Citizens will be asked to choose between retaining the existing mayoral model of governance, which was introduced into Bristol in 2012, or to opt for a committee system of decision-making, which was last used in Bristol in 2000. In a new report, called The Bristol referendum 2022: Thinking through the options, we consider:

  • What exactly are these two ways of running a city?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of these two models?
  • How could the models be designed to enable Bristol to respond to the current challenges the city now faces?

This is the latest report from the Bristol Civic Leadership Project (BCLP). This project, which brings together city governance experts from our two local universities, has been examining the impact of mayoral governance on the city since 2012. 

Research findings on mayoral governance and the committee system

Our research has shown that the introduction of mayoral governance has had many benefits for Bristol. Opinion research carried out by the BCLP before and after the introduction of a directly elected mayor – in 2012, 2014 and 2018 – indicates that the citizens of Bristol felt that the leadership of the city became far more visible. Civic leaders agreed that the mayoral model enhanced the visibility of the city leader, and they also felt that the mayoral model had improved the leadership of the city. 

Detailed investigation over the last ten years has also revealed that civic leaders in the city, in the public, private and community sectors, as well as citizens at large, take the view that Bristol’s first two directly elected mayors, Mayor Ferguson (2012-2016) and Mayor Rees (2016-2024), have both been successful in developing a positive vision for the future of the city and that the mayoral model meant that the city was much better represented in national and international settings.

On the downside BCLP research has also shown that, following the introduction of mayoral governance, many councillors felt that their role in city governance became unnecessarily restricted. There was also concern amongst civic leaders that too much power had become concentrated in the office of the mayor. Our survey research also suggests that citizens’ views on the timeliness of, and trust in, decision-making have not been improved by the introduction of mayoral governance in Bristol.

This new report also reviews experience with the committee system used in Bristol and across local government in Britain up to 2000. Supporters of the committee system argued that it enabled local government to be both effective and democratic, and that it provided councillors with influential roles in decision-making. 

However, in a report published by the Bristol Local Democracy Commission in 2001, major criticisms of the committee system were identified. The Commission found that there was no clear and accountable leadership, that important decisions were not subject to proper and effective scrutiny, and that a lot of time and effort was absorbed to no great effect in committee meetings.

Where next for city governance in Bristol?

Current legislation means that the referendum will fix the governance system of Bristol for ten years, from 2024 to 2034. It is a hugely significant decision. This new report discusses a range of issues for citizens to consider and here we highlight three important themes.

First, the literature on city leadership suggests that the way city governance is organised can have an important impact, not just on whether a city council is able to be effective in meeting the many complex issues they face, but also on the democratic vitality and inclusiveness of decision-making in their city. 

It follows that all the citizens of Bristol should be encouraged to consider which of these two models of governance will help the city respond to the major challenges now facing the city. These challenges include: responding to the public health consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic; revitalising the economy of Bristol in the face of economic downturn; addressing the global climate emergency; and addressing increasing social, economic and racial inequality in our city.

Second, key democratic questions emerge in this debate. What are the advantages and disadvantages of enabling citizens to directly elect the city leader? What are the pros and cons of the committee system, where the council leader is selected by councillors? As part of our research on mayoral governance, we have long argued for stronger roles for councillors within the mayoral system. Adopting a committee system gives councillors clear roles in decision-making. In our report, we consider these and other matters, and include consideration of the ways that the models shape political leadership, their impacts on accountability and the ways that they affect the representation of people locally and the city externally.

Third, given the momentous significance of the May referendum for the future governance of Bristol the report recommends the establishment of an independent Bristol Governance Commission. This new commission, which would need to include representatives from across the voluntary, community, trade union, business, public and university sectors should be charged with the task of considering the best way to improve the governance of the City of Bristol. 

This new commission should be set up without delay to take evidence, to consider experiences with successful city governance elsewhere in the world and to make recommendations to Bristol City Council. 

The outcome of the Bristol Referendum in May 2022 is best seen not as the end of a debate about city leadership in Bristol, but the beginning of a civic conversation on how to improve the quality of city governance in our city.

Evaluating the Bristol One City Approach

In this Opinion piece for Bristol 24/7, published on 26/4/21, Robin Hambleton suggests that the Bristol One City Approach to city governance has brought about many benefits.  He argues that, whist this collaborative way of responding to the challenges facing Bristol can be improved, it is important to remember that it represents a significant advance on previous approaches to city governance.

New book on Cities and communities beyond COVID-19

Authored by Robin Hambleton a new book – Cities and communities beyond COVID-19. How local leadership can change our future for the better – includes a chapter discussing the Bristol One City Approach in some detail.  Published in October 2020 this book suggests that successful city strategies now need to address four major challenges at once: the COVID-19 health emergency, a very sharp economic downturn arising from the pandemic, the climate emergency, and deep-seated social, economic and racial inequality.  For more information see:

New research report examines Mayoral governance in Bristol

In a referendum held in May 2012 the citizens of Bristol voted in favour of introducing a Directly Elected Mayor model of governance for the city.  As part of the Bristol Festival of Ideas a new report providing the latest assessment of this important innovation will be launched at the Bristol Old Vic on 17 March 2020.  Written by Dr David Sweeting, Professor Robin Hambleton and Dr Thom Oliver, this third Policy Report from the Bristol Civic Leadership Project will provide an independent assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the model of mayoral governance as implemented in Bristol over the last eight years.

Details of the launch are as follows:

Date: Tuesday 17 March 2020.

Time: 6.00 to 7.30pm

Location: Coopers’ Hall, Bristol Old Vic, King Street, Bristol, BS1 4ED

The launch is free but anyone wishing to attend needs to register with the Festival.  Please click here:


Sharing understanding of mayoral governance

The Newham Democracy and Civic Participation Commission invited Robin Hambleton to provide evidence about the strengths and weaknesses of the mayoral model of governance to an Evidence Hearing held in Newham on 29 January 2020. Like Bristol, the London Borough of Newham has a directly elected mayor. Newham_Democracy_Commission_social_sharing Rokhsana Fiaz, the current mayor, established this independent Commission to examine the performance of the mayoral model and, in addition, to explore ways of strengthening resident engagement in the borough. Robin explained how the mayoral model in Bristol has resulted in a dramatic increase in the visibility of city leadership and answered questions about the way mayoral governance in Bristol has evolved in the period since 2012. The Newham Commission is expected to publish its report in March 2020. For more information on the Commission visit: 

What have directly elected mayors ever done for us?

Event at The Foundation, central Bristol, 6/11/19, 6pm

There are now 25 directly elected mayors in the UK, with the prospect of more to come. Bristol now has two directly elected mayors, one who heads Bristol City Council, and another who leads the West of England combined authority. Drawing on research conducted locally, nationally, and internationally, this interactive event will advance understanding of the impact of the introduction of directly elected mayors in English local government. It includes the following speakers:

  • Arianna Giovannini, Institute for Public Policy Research and De Montfort University
  • Baroness Barbara Janke, Member of the House of Lords and former Leader, Bristol City Council
  • Alessandro Sancino, The Open University, and former politician
  • David Sweeting, University of Bristol
  • Chair: Thom Oliver, University of the West of England

This event is free to attend but booking is required. Please register here, via eventbrite.

‘What have directly elected mayors done for us?’ is one of a series of events organised under Thinking Futures, which shares and celebrates research undertaken in the University of Bristol’s Faculty of Social Sciences and Law.