Rebel councillor criticises mayoral model as referendum call is defeated

March 26 2021

Cllr Mike DaviesA “demoralised” Labour councillor broke ranks with a stirring speech in which he criticised the mayoral model during a debate on whether it should be scrapped.
St Andrews councillor Mike Davies became the latest to rebel against the party whip when he seconded a Liberal Democrat motion calling for Bristolians to be given another referendum on having an elected mayor for the city.
He told the full council on March 16 that the current system had made the role of members “hollow” and let communities down.
The motion, supported by the Conservatives, fell by 35-24 votes as most Greens joined the ruling Labour group in voting against it.
Members heard impassioned arguments for and against the mayoral model, with the current office holder, Labour’s Marvin Rees, insisting the role was the most democratic in Bristol and that the referendum calls were an attempt to “drag the council back 15 years”.
Conservative councillor for Westbury-on-Trym and Henleaze Steve Smith said mayors possessed unchecked power and that “short of committing a serious offence and being sent to prison, nobody can do anything to touch them”.
The shock decision by Councillor Davies to formally back Lib Dem group leader Cllr Gary Hopkins’s motion comes on the back of Labour's Councillor  Jo Sergeant quitting the party, accusing it of wanting “power for power’s sake” and a culture of “fear and bullying”, and Councillor Nicola Bowden-Jones joining the Greens in demanding the cabinet reverses its rent freeze for council tenants.
Ashley ward representative Cllr Davies, who is stepping down at May’s local elections, said: “There has been such a disparity between my hopes before I got elected and the reality of being a councillor under the mayoral system.
“It has been a demoralising experience.
“Under the mayoral system so much experience, talent and expertise has gone wasted.
“Councillors are not a relic of the past or an inconvenience despite being made to feel that way much of the time.
“The reasons we’ve had councillors for hundreds of years is so communities can have a genuine voice when decisions are made.
“But for the most part the mayoral system has minimised the role to one of responding to complaints and undertaking case work.
“Without being able to effectively realise change, our role is hollow and our communities are let down.”
He said the alternative system suggested in the motion – a leader and cabinet – was not perfect but was a “huge improvement” on the mayoral system because leaders were accountable to councils.
Cllr Smith said: “If a council leader had lost £50million of taxpayers’ money in a failed venture and risked losing a chunk more refurbishing a concert hall, they could be removed from their role.
“If a council leader had been accused publicly by multiple members of their own party of presiding over a culture of bullying and intimidation, they could be removed from their role.
“Once elected, a mayor can do what they want for four years. Short of committing a serious offence and being sent to prison, nobody can do anything to touch them.”
Labour Cllr Carole Johnson said the mayoral system was “getting stuff done”.
Mr Rees said: “The needs of a modern city like Bristol outgrew the old model of operation.
“We were almost a quango of invisible meetings that did not make real decisions at the pace they were needed.
“I recognise it’s a challenge for councillors in how they fit in this role.
“You can’t just take a mayoral model and retrofit it and expect
everything to work, but rather than dragging the council back 15 years we should look at how we as a collection of elected representatives build the skills and culture to deliver for the city as it is today.

“Fundamentally this is an effort to take decisions for the political leader of Bristol back to a small number of councillors in an anonymous committee room.”
He said a directly elected mayor was “the most democratic intervention we’ve had for a long time”.
Green Cllr Martin Fodor (Redland ward) told the Bristol City Council meeting the motion
 “binds the hands” of the council and “locks us into a referendum with voters offered only two choices” between a mayor and a leader/cabinet.
He said a proper debate was needed, including the option of a committee system, which his national party favours.
Newly independent Cllr Sergeant opposed the motion as a “desperate” bid to “rush through this major, irreversible decision”.
She said a commission should instead be set up to explore modernising the traditional committee model that would “move us away from the party political bickering and the cult of personality” ahead of a potential referendum in May 2023.
Cllr Hopkins said he had wanted to include all the options in the motion but had been restricted on the advice of the legal officer.
During the scrutiny annual report earlier in the meeting, resources scrutiny commission chairman,  Cllr Stephen Clarke (Green Party)  said: “This administration often sees scrutiny as a nuisance to be avoided where possible and to be nullified where that can’t happen. I have found it depressing how little real listening is done by those with the power to those who are trying to help.
“Quangos seem to spring up like mushrooms in this corner of the world – the environmental sustainability board, the culture board, the economy and skills board and so on are all given power and influence to shape decision-making and priorities in Bristol.
“They may be doing some great work but they are not democratic.
“The vast majority of their members do not have to face the electorate on May 6.”
In a written statement to member forum earlier on Tuesday, retiring Labour Cllr Olly Mead said: “From 2012-16 it became a case of George Ferguson doing battle with 70 opponents/enemies and from 2016 to present of a successor, wary of the crucifixion his predecessor experienced, trying to find ways of avoiding working with the council wherever possible.
“What has suffered most as a result of this is scrutiny.
“Instead of treating councillors like a nuisance to be barely tolerated and left in a corner to do colouring-in like primary school children, there should be meaningful opportunities for us to make a difference on issues we care about.
“That will require a relationship of mutual trust, rather than one of councillors sniping at the mayor and the mayor sniping at councillors.
“You know, the kind of relationship grown-ups have in the big wide world outside of politics.”

By Adam Postans, Local Democracy Reporter