Can an elected mayor work for Cardiff?


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Perceptions of an underperforming council, anonymous leadership, lack of clout in Whitehall and progress stifled by inter and intra-party battles all contributed to a Yes vote in a referendum for a directly elected mayor in the City of Bristol in 2012. Yet as Bristol voted yes a further nine cities chose to reject the mayoral model and persist with their existing arrangements. As politicians and activists in Cardiff and across the channel in Bath make moves to secure a referendum on changing their system of governance it is worth considering why the directly elected mayoral model exhibits zombie like qualities in its persistence.

The principle of directly elected mayors is not a new innovation, from being first applied in London in 2000 as part of the New Labour government’s modernisation strategy which aimed to enrich local democracy and strengthen accountability the model has been pushed as the solution to transform local government by subsequent governments. Before the 2012 series of referendums there had been over forty referenda on changed to the elected mayoral model, the majority by quite some way opting against changing the model with turnout being pretty derisory across the board.

One crucial challenge has clearly come in turning a campaign from the initial 5% petitioners required to secure a referendum into a viable movement for change which cuts through voter apathy and offers electors a vision for transformative change. Analysis following the 2012 referenda offered a number of factors which contributed to the dominance of ‘no’ votes. The dominant sentiments amongst the electorate were confusion and uncertainty about precisely what they were being asked to endorse or reject. The perceived risk of electing a single individual, whose role was unclear, and with unclear guidelines about how they could be removed if performing poorly was used by a number of ‘no’ campaigns to position the change to an elected mayor as an inherently risky and intractable choice.

In a number of cases where ‘yes’ votes occurred it stemmed from a reaction to strong criticisms from campaigners of the machinations of party politics with slow progress, infighting and opaque decision making being portrayed as the source of the ills of local government. In Bristol this played out through a strong ‘anti-politics’ sentiment and calls to put the city and its people ahead of a London dominated system of party politics. Most notably the successful yes campaign was led by non-aligned activists from a broad range of backgrounds and communities who offered a strong counter to the standard campaigns of local political party organisations who themselves were slow to mobilise on either side of the debate. It was therefore no surprise when Bristol elected an Independent candidate George Ferguson as its first elected mayor.  The depiction of party politics causing all of Bristol’s problems is perhaps unfair, the city until this year has been subject to elections by thirds which itself can be seen as the strongest contributory factor to the perceived political instability and stagnation of previous years. Nevertheless the change narrative was strong enough to deliver an elected mayor where other campaigns failed.

The sell for an elected mayor remains a difficult one for a number of reasons. Firstly in some respects the game has changed, the proposals for and development of ‘metro mayors’ or ‘conurbation mayors’ offer an opportunity for a greater devolution settlement. Secondly there is a collective action problem for elected mayors, when the majority of cities chose to say no to mayors the opportunity for Cameron’s much trailed ‘Cabinet of Mayors’ was lost so access to Whitehall remains a significant challenge. Finally the position of elected mayor at present comes with no significant additional power, anything that comes down to cities will be negotiated as part of new individual settlements. The governance change relates to how a council works and how its powers are distributed not in fact the powers or competencies it has. Nevertheless the mayoral model has delivered for the City of Bristol across a number of domains. A recent study ‘The Impacts of Mayoral Governance in Bristol’ by Professor Robin Hambleton of the University of the West of England and Dr David Sweeting of the University of Bristol showed a number of positive outcomes of the governance changes in Bristol. Most notably their research shows that across the City there has been a strong perceived improvement in leadership of the city, particularly in a significantly improve visibility of the leadership, a clearer vision for the city being shown and the city leadership being seen as more influential than under the leader and cabinet model. If the campaigns in Cardiff and Bath are to succeed it is across these domains that benefits of the elected model can be asserted. The notion of a single figurehead, who can express a vision for the city and get things done to achieve that vision is a strong message for campaigners. However in order to deliver that a mayor will have to carry the people and the councillors with them and in many respects the change is more about the attitude of individual mayors on what they can achieve than the powers that mayors might be given.

Dr Thom Oliver is a Research Business Development Manager and Researcher at the University of the West of England, Bristol. His research focuses on local government, city leadership, elections and the role of councillors.


This was originally an invited post for the Institute of Welsh Affairs:



May 2016 Elections


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This was a joint post with Dr David Sweeting (University of Bristol) for VOSCUR a support organisation for voluntary, community groups and social enterprises in the City of Bristol ahead of the Mayoral, Local Government and Police and Crime Commissioner elections.

Having the ear of George Ferguson: Bristol, elections and the mayoral model (Repost)


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Its election time in Bristol and there is a strange feeling in the air, something has changed and it’s not the colour of the mayor’s trousers. George Ferguson is now the sole power and the culture of politics is perhaps changing in the City.

oliver pic

In a recent news article BBC Bristol Reporter Robin Markwell stopped short of asking the question ‘whats the point of councillors’ in favour of ‘why bother voting‘? As the ‘no’ campaigners warned in their literature about the dangers of placing all the power of the hands of one person, the election of an Independent mayor in Bristol has got some councillors re-evaluating their role and redoubling their focus. With a third of the council up for election and the Lib Dems with potentially the most to lose the mayoral model is also changing the focus and content of campaigns.

As the second largest group on the council, and not a member of the multi-party cabinet, Labour’s campaigning at first glance seems quite generic. It stresses a national stance against the bedroom tax and champions the NHS, which in the light of national events may strike a chord with many. Their local pledges focus around making Bristol a Living Wage City (something Ferguson has spoken against in the past), a piggy-backing onto the campaign of local non-political activist Daniel Farr against the Fares of FirstBus, along with a desire for more affordable homes and childcare places. The movement to pushing these broader campaigns is unsurprising in the light of the movement to a mayoral model.

Across the city the Liberal Democrats have perhaps grasped the nettle of change more strongly, a campaign leaflet reads:

‘This election won’t decide who runs Bristol, or the country. It’s about the best person to stand up for our local area and fight our corner on the council’.

This focus is not so much a change, but perhaps a re-assertion of the community politics and community champion focus which served the party so well before any conception of the party as one of national government. Yet for a party which until the election of Ferguson was running the council, it’s certainly a re-evaluation.

Elsewhere across the City the Conservatives are hugging the mayor tight in their campaigns and the Green party (contesting all seats) are concentrating their efforts on two wards including the one where they already have one councillor. Independents for Bristol remain a bit of an enigma, and it is difficult to even estimate their electoral chances. Their campaigning led with a leaflet about the Independents for Bristol umbrella group, followed by a ‘Magnificent seven’ leaflet (although they are in fact standing 8 candidates) which again made little of localised campaigns or individuals as candidates, with the final leaflet due to hit letterboxes soon it’s a short time for candidates to assert their independence and individuality, this work is presumably being done on the doorstep.

With party politics a dirty word, Independents for Bristol have focused on the Nolan principles for politicians and appointees as an ideological basis, on the evidence thus far in terms of group organisation, the messaging on campaign literature and the existence of selection panels some are beginning to ask the question: if it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck… The challenge for IfB is and will remain in giving independent candidates a competitive platform against better resourced local parties without impinging on the independence of individual candidates. This was highlighted by Helen Mott (IfB Candidate) in her recent blogpost.

As the campaign plays out questions on the composition of Ferguson’s all-party cabinet remain of interest to locals and politicos. Recently the mayor moved with great relief to fill the void left by Labour councillors as both the local party and National NEC vetoed any Labour involvement in George’s new politics. He appointed two Lib Dems and a Conservative to join his skeletal and stretched cabinet of one a Conservative, a Liberal Democrat and a Green. As George and the group leaders look over their coffee cups the morning after the count the spectre of this debate will re-emerge asking questions about George’s new politics and how councillors, independents, parties can promote campaigns, champion their local areas and ultimately get the man in the red trousers to listen.


This blogpost was originally published on the Institute of Local Government Studies blog

Bring Me the Head of George Ferguson: Is Bristol the Last Stand for Elected Mayors? (Repost)


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The ultimate Zombie Idea of Local Government lives on in the West of England but will budgetary and party political challenges spell an end for the directly elected mayoral model?

Proposals for an elected mayor model first emerged in a Department of the Environment consultation paper in 1991 as part of another comprehensive review of local government. It was part of that same review that led to the replacement of the ‘community charge’ with the council tax and the creation of the Local Government Commission.  Whilst given little attention at the time ‘The Internal Management of Local Authorities in England’ consultation gave us the first mentions of cabinets in local government, council managers and directly elected mayors. Since then the idea of directly elected mayors has been dealt near fatal blows but still emerges as one of the battery of central government medications to cure the ills of local government.

I get knocked down but I get up again

The policy ideal of elected mayors has been advocated by a range of politicians of different hues, each of whom have championed the idea only to find themselves confronted with new setbacks. First up, of all the responses to the 1991 consultation from county councils, district councils, London and metropolitan boroughs not one was in favour of elected mayors. Labour under Blair grabbed hold of the idea and in government legislated for elected mayors through the Local Government Act 2000. However when offered the option of a move away from committee based structures, few opted for a directly elected mayor and cabinet model with the majority choosing the leader and cabinet model. Whilst the Act succeeded in moving councils away from the committee system, very few referendums were held to move to elected mayors. As the tide ebbed back to committees, plans for directly elected mayors were seemingly left high and dry.

That was until the Localism Act 2011 and the mandated referendums of May 2012 when directly elected mayors became the solution again. The voters of Birmingham, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham, Sheffield, Wakefield, Coventry, Leeds and Bradford all kicked the idea to the long grass. However the policy ideal lives on, and eyes are on Bristol and its newly elected independent mayor. But what are the prospects for success for both the man and the idea, and just how has this idea survived such a tumultuous ride in the face of significant and regular challenges to its worthiness and legitimacy?

The challenge for the newly elected mayor of Bristol

BriscityhallGeorge Ferguson, architect, entrepreneur and purveyor of red trousers, is the man tasked with carrying forward the brow beaten ideal of directly elected mayors and championing a cause in the face of numerous challenges.

Whilst there are hopes of an independents revolution as argued by Martin Stott following George’s cannibalism of votes from the Lib Dems, Conservatives and Labour, party politics seemingly lives on and has surfaced abruptly as he tries to form his Rainbow cabinet. Surprising some by offering a composition based on vote proportions in the mayoral vote all parties were offered a place at the table (3 for Labour whose candidate Marvin Rees had come in a solid second place, 1 Liberal Democrat, 1 Conservative and 1 Green). George invoked a game of party political unpluralist ping pong. The Greens, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats moved to embrace the ‘new mood’ but Labours decisions were more protracted. First the local party voted against their councillors sitting on the cabinet, next up the council group voted by a small margin that they would join George only to be denied later through being overruled by Labours National Executive Committee. A flurry of press releases, resignations and regretful declines of cabinet offers later, George has been left with a cabinet of three and three empty seats, the vacant cabinet posts being taken on by Ferguson himself.

At first look it would seem a politically expedient option for Labour to not sit at George’s table as he makes a prospective £36million worth of cuts. However some have stressed they have misread the mood of the city. The pre-Ferguson Lib Dem administration through star chambers and cross party working had steered through over £55million worth of cuts impressively without drawing protests onto the streets of the city. Labour has seemingly chosen to sit back in ‘constructive opposition’ remaining untainted by Ferguson’s budget and potentially riding back in as white knights to join George once the budget has been passed.

It remains to be seen whether Ferguson will ask other parties to fill the Labour gaps or whether he will issue a now or never ultimatum for them to join now or remain out of the cabinet for the considerable future.

Killing the zombie?

The challenge for George as an Independent in the party political world is hard but if he fails would that be the end of the line for the idea of elected mayors? All eyes will be on Bristol. The yes to mayor vote in Bristol and the election of George Ferguson showed there was an appetite for something different, if not for elected mayors.

The idea of directly elected mayors has survived this long as the model hasn’t proved itself but it hasn’t been disproved. A recent guardian piece posited much hope for George in Bristol but if George and his rainbow cabinet in Bristol don’t succeed, it may be the final straw in killing the Zombie.

… Or perhaps Michael Heseltine will re-awaken the zombie idea of British Local Government:

“I was disappointed that more cities did not choose to opt for a mayor. It confirmed my fear that relatively few would vote and that party loyalties would determine the outcomes. I believe this issue needs to be revisited to give our cities the influence and leadership commonly found in similar economies.”


This blogpost was originally posted on the blog of the Institute of Local Government Studies (University of Birmingham) on the 13th December 2012.


Threats or opportunities: Governance beyond the state


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It’s annoying isn’t it, you sit down at your desk, trying to get on with your work and notice an interesting hash tag on twitter, this time it wasn’t a series of tweeters looking to explore cheese based film puns but instead a rather intriguing debate between academics and practitioners under the tag #beyondthestate. This was generated from the second seminar of the ESRC seminar series entitled ‘Beyond the state? Third party government in comparative perspective’ (link).

The debate touched on a number of themes and explored and interrogated a number of questions. The discourse emerging from the debate explored the concepts of co-production, boundary spanning, civic capacity and improvisational theatre in institutional design.

I thought a useful place to start would be a short post considering the main arguments and questions emerging from the debate on third party government.

The literature shows a broad agreement that third party bodies are playing an increased role in the provision of public services.  Whilst many seem to have escaped the smouldering if poorly executed bonfire of the quangos, the opportunities for governance beyond the state have increased through elements of the Localism Bill. From ground up neighbourhood planning to increasing scope for third sector organisations to bid for the provision of public services, the Localism Bill arrives with as many threats as promises to democratic, representative local government (traditionally conceived).

The formal institutions of government namely parliament and elected councils hold legitimacy, support from, and responsibility to the electorate for their actions. So how is this ability to democratically uphold their obligations to citizens and retain democratic control affected by the rise of increasingly complex governance arrangements involving third party actors?

With an increase in third party government the chains of delegation become longer and the distance between policy architect and policy delivery increases (possibly politically and physically).  The question emerges as to whether accountability dissipates as the chain between source and user of funding lengthens. The movement can also open up potential vulnerabilities in terms of both control issues and a longer term inability to claw back capabilities should the state desire. In hollowing-out the state through greater contracting is local government deferring responsibility in a wish to concentrate on what it does best or alternatively trying to cope with the prevailing climate of cuts and austerity?  The growth of third-party governance also poses accountability challenges as lines of control become blurred and new functions of oversight emerge to attempt to address the democratic deficit.

As a site of research interest however the growth of third-party governance provides a fertile ground for institutional and policy innovation and experimentation. Non-governmental partners are often able to deliver better outcomes at the local level as in some cases they can better discern and accommodate the values, needs and preferences of local communities. The new governance site provides also provides structures and opportunities for citizen participation in the commissioning, design and delivery of localised services through co-production

So the trade-off seems to be between the values of transparency and accountability offered by traditional governmental forms and the flexibility, diversity and innovation offered by these novel forms of governance. This could also be depicted as a change in accountability regimes with a movement from hierarchical and legal forms of accountability to looser mechanisms centred on professional norms, performance outcomes and expectations for responsiveness. If the big society grows and local government retreats, this initial seemingly peripheral debate could emerge like a new phoenix from the ashes of the bonfire of the quangos.