Report points to impact of Mayoral governance in Bristol and reforms needed

Issue date: 10 September 2015


Professor Robin Hambleton

Mayoral governance in the City of Bristol has led to an increase in visibility of city leadership, a stronger vision for the city, better international awareness of Bristol and a positive change in how the city is viewed in Whitehall.

These are some of the findings published in a report, 'The Impacts of Mayoral Governance in Bristol', launched today, 10 September 2015. Written by local democracy experts at the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol) and the University of Bristol (UoB), the report provides an in depth assessment of the mayoral model of governance.

The study reveals marked differences of view between people in the three realms of civic leadership – politicians, public servants, and community and business leaders.

Councillors tend to display more negative views about the mayoral model compared to those in the public managerial, professional, community and business realms.

For example a respondent from the business community said, “We wanted someone who would not worry about what people thought of him and would love the city enough to do things that might not be popular.”

A less positive view was offered by one councillor who said, “Increased visibility is not the be all and end all of leadership, and power is too concentrated around the mayor.”

The Bristol Civic Leadership Report presents before and after findings on the City of Bristol of the introduction of the directly elected mayor model of governance. It is a joint project carried out by Professor Robin Hambleton (UWE Bristol) and Dr David Sweeting (UoB).

Both academics are experts in local democracy and they sought to compare attitudes before the mayor was elected in 2012 and the impact of the mayoral style of governance two years on in 2014.

The research team found concerns about the levels of representation of views within the city, trust in decision-making and the timeliness of decision-making. On these criteria the report suggests that there has not been much improvement.

Professor Hambleton said, “This action research project may be the first before and after assessment of mayoral governance ever carried out. We want to stress that the study is about the mayoral model of governance and not an appraisal of the performance of the current Mayor of Bristol, George Ferguson.

“Our interest is both local and national. We hope that this research can help those involved in reshaping the governance system of the City of Bristol. In addition, we hope that this report can make a useful contribution to national policy and that it will be of interest to other cities in the UK now contemplating whether or not to introduce a mayoral form of governance. We asked if having a directly elected mayor makes a difference and our research shows that it does. It highlights the benefits the model brings to the city alongside lessons to be learned around potential disadvantages.”

The research team discovered the views of citizens and civic leaders through a combination of on-line surveys, focus groups and individual interviews. The entire project has involved close collaboration with Bristol City Council and with civic leaders drawn from across the city.

Bristol bucked the national trend when, in 2012, citizens voted in a referendum to introduce a mayoral model of governance. The transition to a mayoral system of governance – meaning one with a directly elected mayor – has had a major impact on the governance of the city.

Dr David Sweeting said, “There has been an astonishing increase in the visibility of city leadership. In 2012 24% of citizens thought the city had visible leadership, whereas in 2014 this figure leapt to 69%.

“We found that the vision for the future of the city has been strengthened. In 2012, 25% of citizens felt 'The leadership of the council has a vision for the city', compared with 56% in 2014.”

Professor Hambleton continues, “The positives are balanced by an interesting insight into the way mayoral leadership is perceived by different socio-economic groups that we label 'better off Bristol', 'middle income Bristol' and 'less well-off Bristol'. Often, but not universally, those people living in the better off parts of Bristol showed an inclination to see the move to the mayoral model of governance, two years after the mayoral election, more positively than those living in the less well-off parts of the city.”

The report identifies five strategic choices for the future that focus on how to improve the quality of mayoral governance in the city over the next ten years.

These include: exploring how to disperse some powers away from the mayoral office; the development of roles for all councillors; re-energising neighbourhood governance; inventing new ways of including more voices in urban governance; and creating an effective strategy for city region governance.

The Citywide Seminar held on 10 September 2015 is intended to assist leaders from the various realms of civic leadership start a process of reform.

A full copy of the report will be posted on bristolcivicleadership.net at 17:00 on 10 September 2015.

The study was funded by the ESRC Impact Acceleration Account (IAA) and Bristol City Council. The IAA is intended to enhance the impact of high quality research.

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