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What Bristol tells us about how to lead cities

31 March 2015

Robin Hambleton

New research on mayoral governance in Bristol suggests a key lesson for central government: Whitehall should offer more incentives to localities, whether individual local authorities or groupings of local authorities, to adopt the mayoral model.

In 2012 ten of England’s largest cities, outside London, were required to hold referendums giving citizens the option of introducing a directly elected mayor model of governance. Nine rejected the idea. Bristol, quirky as always, voted yes and, in a further twist, elected an independent candidate, George Ferguson, to lead the city.

Mayor Ferguson is a highly respected architect and urbanist – he served as President of the RIBA (from 2003 to 2005) - and, not surprisingly, he is pursuing policies that will be of particular interest to planners. Elected in November 2012 he has already pushed forward his desire to make the city a much healthier place to live. The designation of Bristol as European Green Capital 2015 aligns with a range of sustainable urbanism initiatives now underway in the city.

I am co-leading a study with David Sweeting of the University of Bristol - The Bristol Civic Leadership Project – that is designed to assess what difference the mayoral model makes to the governance of the city, and to identify ways to improve the performance of the model.

We gathered views about the governance of the city from 650 respondents in 2012 and 2014 – before and after the introduction of the mayoral model of governance. We also surveyed a sample of civic leaders drawn from the third sector, the business community, local councillors, council officers and public servants in Bristol, and we organised various focus groups.

A weakness with recent efforts to introduce mayoral governance in England – and this applies as much in Leicester and Liverpool as it does in Bristol – is that central government is still calling the shots.

Our findings show that the introduction of a directly elected mayor has resulted in a startling increase in the visibility of city leadership. In 2012, before the introduction of the mayor, 24 per cent of citizens thought the city had visible leadership. After the introduction of the mayor, in 2014, 69 per cent agreed. This increase was also evident in the responses from civic leaders from the community, voluntary and business sectors. Twenty-five per cent agreed that Bristol had visible leadership in 2012, compared with an astonishing 97 per cent in 2014.

Councillors tend to be less positive than other groups about the introduction of the mayor. While 54 per cent of citizens and around 78 per cent of public managers and leaders from the business, community and voluntary sectors agreed that the introduction of the mayoral system had ensured the interests of Bristol are better represented, only 33 per of councillors agreed.

A weakness with recent efforts to introduce mayoral governance in England – and this applies as much in Leicester and Liverpool as it does in Bristol – is that central government is still calling the shots.

We live in the most centralised state in the western world and this is holding Britain back. All the political parties claim to be committed to devolving power within England but the ambition, across the board, falls a long way short of what is needed.

Research presented in my new book on Leading the Inclusive City shows that local authorities in other countries, whether they are led by an elected mayor or not, have far more power to do things differently.

Robin Hambleton’s book, Leading the Inclusive City, Place-based Innovation for a Bounded Planet (Policy Press) provides an international exploration of city leadership models and approaches. For more about the book, see:

About Robin Hambleton

Robin Hambleton is Professor of City Leadership, Centre for Sustainable Planning and Environments, University of the West of England, Bristol.