Directly-elected mayors could be the future, but they won’t work for everybody

Bath and North East Somerset residents will tomorrow vote in a referendum which will decide the future of how their local authority is governed. But I wonder if they really know what they are voting for and whether this is the right move for the World Heritage City and its rural surroundings.

When evaluating the success of the elected mayor model, Bath’s residents need look no further than their cosmopolitan neighbours in Bristol. George Ferguson won hearts and minds with his role as a leading architect in the physical regeneration of the city’s urban areas, which gave him immense popularity going into the Mayoral vote.

But in his four-year tenure, to the untrained eye, he appears to have made some unpopular, autocratic decisions without scrutiny from ‘ordinary’ Council members. These include the roll-out of Residents Parking Zones and opening up the city to high-value housing development which many claim is pricing Bristol’s born-and-bred out of the city’s urban areas, scrawled eloquently by Bristol’s Banksy-wannabees as “Gentriferguson” on site hoardings across the city.

However, I would argue that this is the benefit of a directly elected mayor, that decisive action on key issues can be taken before a Mayor’s four-year term is up. The RPZs, particularly in the wealthy suburb of Clifton, have clearly caused a stir but nobody could argue that city’s parking problems could go unaddressed. A rapid decision-making process has meant that the RPZ has been rolled out and subsequent compromises have been established within Ferguson’s four-year term, including a 20-minute grace parking period for shoppers in Clifton.

Whilst it’s clear that I think Bristol’s mayoralty has been a success, I also think it’s not for everywhere. Ferguson’s apolitical ticket has allowed him to make apolitical decisions in the interest of the city, without having to toe the party line. He recently criticised one of Bristol’s Development Control Committees for kicking plans for a new arena development into the long grass after anxiety from members that plans had been rushed through without a proper study into how the arena would affect the city’s transport network.

Whether you agree with the issues at play or not, this is a clearly a sign of a functioning democracy, where ‘ordinary’ Council members have a proper mandate to make decisions despite the Mayor’s portfolio. However, I fear that this wouldn’t have happened if a Labour mayor were in place, for example, whereby the Labour majority on the committee would presumably have been whipped to fall in line with the Mayor’s position.

Mayors can work for cities and metropolitan areas, but for me there is no place for party politics in metropolitan areas, where the immediate day-to-day issues that a city needs to deal with to function cannot be dealt with quickly enough by party rhetoric.

Bath and North East Somerset residents must therefore think carefully about whether their not-so-diverse political spectrum and the resulting likelihood of a party-political mayor really has the answer to Bath’s issues of road congestion, an aggressive heritage lobby, rubbish-strewn streets and North East Somerset’s high levels of deprivation and woeful public transport links.