One year in, Bristol’s Mayoral experiment is making a difference to the city’s governance

Picture of GeorgeBristol’s first Elected Mayor, George Ferguson, gave his first State of the City address yesterday. Here, in a post that first appeared at Democratic AuditDavid Sweeting reviews the first year of George’s term in office and examines what the impact of Mayoral governance has been.

It is nearly a year since the first directly elected mayor of Bristol took office. While Bristol is not the only place in the country to have such a mayor, it was the only one of ten cities that said yes to a mayor in referendums held in May 2012. Despite various inducements from central government in the form of looking favourably at city deals, and also the prospect of a mayors’ cabinet with the PM himself, Bristolians were the only citizens in the country at that time to go for the option of replacing a traditional council leader with what many see as an American style figure at the head of city government. So, as the Mayor of Bristol, George Ferguson, prepares for his first ‘state of the city’ speech, it seems appropriate to ask, what difference does having an elected mayor make?

Campaigns for and against directly elected mayors tend to draw on similar arguments. The for camps tend to argue that directly elected mayors will be more democratic and more effective. They argue that when citizens are able to choose the mayor directly, it will lead to greater interest in the political process, more recognition of decision-makers, and therefore that leader will be more accountable once election time comes around. They also argue that directly elected mayors can draw on their direct mandate to influence others in the city, and that a mayor in post for four years can be more effective in making things happen, both inside and outside the council as a result of the stability that their fixed-term brings. The against camps tend to argue the reverse – that directly elected mayors will be less democratic and less effective. There is no way of getting rid of a mayor between elections, so they are unaccountable. And loading decision-making onto one individual centralises power too much, leading to delay and overload. Continue reading

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Towards a global parliament of mayors?

Alex Marsh reports on an event at the Bristol Festival of Ideas. This post first appeared at PolicyBristol Hub.

if-mayors-ruled-the-world-198x300How should a world characterised by increasingly complex interdependence be governed? If most of the major challenges we face have no respect for the artificial borders marking out nation states, how can we identify and deliver effective solutions?

The answer Benjamin Barber offered in his stimulating presentation on Monday night is that we need to look to cities. More specifically, we need to look to mayors. His case is in part rooted in the fact of an increasingly urban future. But it is also based upon the characteristics he identifies as distinctive to mayoral governance. This is an argument developed at greater length in his new book If mayors ruled the world: Dysfunctional nations, rising cities (Yale University Press).

Barber starts from the premise that we can no longer look to the nation state to find solutions to some of the world’s most pressing problems. The nation state may have made sense when social and economic problems were contained within borders. That is not the world we inhabit now. Even if a problem starts as local, it can soon become global.

But in a world of interdependence the community of nations has time and again proved itself unable to deliver an effective response. Whether it be policy on climate change, security, migration or public health, attempts to find cross-national solutions are as likely to result in stalemate or veto by individual sovereign states as they are to result in decisive action. When problems demand collaborative solutions, nation states can find it hard to move beyond their competitive impulses.

Equally importantly, nation states fail to secure the sort of broad-based democratic support that is necessary to deliver legitimacy to radical solutions. This is because of the limited and rather abstract nature of national citizenship. It is a citizenship of rights, without meaningful obligations that have an everyday urgency.

Barber contrasts this with the way in which mayors operate. Models of mayoral governance differ in their detail, but their defining characteristic is pragmatism. Barber’s argument has a strongly structural flavour. He argues that for mayors “issues shape behaviour in common ways” and that “ideology doesn’t serve them very well;  and nor do political parties”. Mayors need to find solutions to real problems that affect the day to day lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Continue reading

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Housing association futures

Under the strapline “Creating a new vision for housing associations” the National Housing Federation is currently facilitating a nationwide conversation within the British social housing community about the future of social housing. Part of that exercise is to gather perspectives on what housing providers will look like, and what they will be doing, in 2033. In this post Alex Marsh offers his perspective. The post first appeared on the HotHouse blog as a contribution to the NHF’s national conversation.

The global financial crisis looks like a critical juncture on the path of housing policy. The old rules of the game have been disrupted. The crash empowered the Coalition government to slash conventional capital funding, introduce the “affordable” rent programme and pursue precarious welfare reform. This combination is setting us off on a new path, which will over time transform the sector.

We have witnessed relatively little structural reform to the broader housing market over the last three years, and it doesn’t look like there is a lot more on the agenda for the next couple. This is a missed opportunity. Unless there is a radical rethink – for example regarding the benefits of subsidizing bricks and mortar rather than people – I don’t see a substantial change in policy direction any time soon.

So what might the world look like if we continue down the path we seem to have set out on? Continue reading

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Citizens, mayors and democracy in the city

As part of Democracy Week in Bristol, last Friday academics from the University of Bristol and the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) took part in a seminar on citizens, mayors and democracy in the city. The event drew on research co-produced with research partners in local communities, including local policy communities. The participation of colleagues from Mexico was made possible by support from the British Academy. In this post Jo Howard, the SPS doctoral student responsible for organising the event, gives her perspective on the afternoon’s discussions.

Both Mexico City and Bristol now have directly elected mayors. Both cities are experimenting with ways of engaging citizens beyond the ballot box. In Mexico City, citizens can take part in participatory budgeting. In Bristol, neighbourhood partnerships bring residents, councillors and service providers together to address local issues and make decisions about local service provision. The seminar explored to what extent these mechanisms deepen democracy. And if citizens have more decision-making power, how does this affect the role of councillors? Continue reading

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