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Has a Bristol mayor made a difference?

Press release issued: 17 March 2020

Mayoral governance in Bristol has boosted the visibility of city leadership and helped promote Bristol on the national and international stage, a new study has found.

The research by the UWE and University of Bristol also showed the mayoral model of leadership had unnecessarily restricted the role of councillors and reduced citizens’ belief in their ability to influence decisions.

Bristol was one of the pioneering UK cities to introduce an elected mayor in 2012. Researchers at both universities have gathered data over an eight-year period to explore whether the model has been successful.

Researchers compared people’s views about the quality of city governance in Bristol as expressed in 2012, before Bristol had a directly elected mayor, with current views about the strengths and weaknesses of the mayoral model.

Academics have highlighted five major findings from their ongoing research, The Bristol Civic Leadership Project, in an independent report Mayoral governance in Bristol: Has it made a difference?

  • The research shows that the introduction of mayoral governance in Bristol has given a significant boost to the visibility of city leadership. In 2012 24% of citizens thought that the city had visible city leadership. By 2018 this figure had more than doubled to reach 51%. The mayor of Bristol is a high-profile public figure able to convene important stakeholders; this is a marked contrast to the situation that existed in the pre-mayoral era.
  • Mayoral leadership has led to a more broadly recognised vision for the city. In 2012, 25% of citizens thought that the leadership of the council had a vision for the city. This rose to 39% in 2018. In interviews carried out in 2019 civic leaders indicated that mayoral leadership has been critical in developing the new One City Plan, which sets out a detailed vision for Bristol in 2050.
  • The mayoral model has enabled the first two mayors of Bristol to promote Bristol on the national and international stage, and this outgoing leadership has attracted investment to the city.
  • The research found that the role of councillors in exercising civic leadership has been unnecessarily restricted within the way the mayoral model has operated so far. This drawback was identified in the researchers’ 2015 report and remains a concern that needs to be addressed.
  • There has been a small decline in the number of citizens believing that there are many opportunities to get involved in decision-making in the city. The proportion feeling this way dropped from 27% in 2012 to 23% in 2018.

Dr David Sweeting, a Senior Lecturer in Urban Studies at the University of Bristol and another of the report's authors, said: “The report offers several suggestions on how to improve mayoral governance in England in general, and in Bristol in particular. For example, it suggests that Whitehall needs to devolve far more powers and fiscal autonomy to local areas so that elected local leaders, whether they are directly elected mayors or not, can exercise decisive place-based leadership.”

Robin Hambleton, Emeritus Professor of City Leadership at UWE Bristol and one of the report’s authors, said: “Ahead of the forthcoming local elections in May there is a chance to study this report on whether the mayoral model has worked.

“We hope it will help the citizens of Bristol reach an informed view about whether Bristol should continue with a mayoral model of governance or get rid of it. We also identify challenges that need to be addressed by central government ministers if they want mayoral governance to succeed in localities across the UK.

Further information

In 2012 the citizens of Bristol decided, in a citywide referendum, to introduce a mayoral model of governance. The nine other cities in England given this opportunity said ‘no’.

The new model of city governance that citizens opted for involved all Bristol citizens electing a known individual to lead the city for a four-year term, alongside the election of local councillors to represent their views and bring about improvements in the local quality of life.

The Bristol Civic Leadership Project

Launched in 2012, the Bristol Civic Leadership Project (BCLP) set out to provide evidence on what difference the mayoral model actually makes to the governance of the city, and to identify ways to improve the performance of the model.

A collaboration between the University of Bristol and UWE Bristol, this research has involved representative surveys of citizens and civic leaders, including councillors, public sector managers, and leaders from the community, the voluntary and business sectors, and workshops and focus groups with people from inside and outside local government.

BCLP aims to enhance the quality of debate about civic leadership and local democracy not just in Bristol, but also nationally and internationally. The research has involved surveys of citizens and civic leaders in 2012, 2014 and 2018. The three researchers involved in carrying out this research are Professor Robin Hambleton, UWE Bristol, Dr David Sweeting, University of Bristol, and Dr Thom Oliver, UWE Bristol. 

In addition to the surveys the researchers have run workshops and focus groups with actors from inside and outside local government in Bristol and nationally, and have carried out numerous face-to-face interviews with various key actors. It is believed to be the only longitudinal study of the impacts of mayoral governance carried out anywhere in the world.

More information:

Research findings from this study have appeared in a variety of academic journals and the information on Bristol’s changing governance has appeared in two books: 

Hambleton R. (2015) Leading the Inclusive City. Place-based innovation for a bounded planet. Bristol: Policy Press.

Sweeting D. (ed) (2017) Directly Elected Mayors in Urban Governance. Impact and practice. Bristol: Policy Press.  (Contains chapters by Hambleton, Sweeting and Oliver)

A full PDF version of the report is available upon request from Monday 16 March.

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