Mayoral Referendum

On Thursday 5th May 2022, Bristol gets a chance to say whether it wants to continue to be run by a mayor. Elections for local councillors now happen only every four years, the next being in 2024, so the mayoral referendum will be the only choice to be made this May. But the choice is one that people may find hard to make. The following tries to set out what is at stake.

Some background

Bristol was the first (and only) city to vote to introduce an elected mayor when the first referendums on mayors were held in 2012. Since then, regional mayors have been introduced, including the metro mayor for the West of England Combined Authority (WECA), which includes the Bristol council area. So we now have two elected mayors – Marvin Rees is Bristol mayor and Dan Norris is metro mayor for WECA.

The legislation allows a choice of city leadership to be made every ten years or more, so this year will be the first opportunity to review the current system. It also specifies that a referendum must only allow a two-way choice, despite there being three possible ways the city could be run.

Three ways to run a city

Legislation allows the city to be run in one of three different ways:

  • Directly elected mayor
  • Council leader plus cabinet
  • Committees of councillors

Bristol has used each of these three systems in the past, and each has their advantages and disadvantages. In each system there are still a set of councillors elected to represent the wards across the city, but their role varies between the systems.

Directly elected mayor

In this system, electors directly vote for an individual to run the city, separate from the councillors. The elected mayor then appoints a cabinet of their choice from the elected councillors. Decisions about the running of the city are typically put forward by the mayor for approval by the cabinet, with the mayor having a casting vote.

Advantages of this system are that one person is seen as representing the city to the rest of the country and the world, and that they have significant powers to get things done. A disadvantage is that the mayor does not have to involve councillors to check that mayoral decisions are appropriate and accord with the majority view.

This is the system Bristol has used since 2012. George Ferguson was the first directly elected mayor for four years, followed from 2016 by Marvin Rees, who is now in his second four-year period.

Council leader plus cabinet

In this system, a leader is chosen by and from the elected councillors. Typically, but not necessarily, the council leader will be the leader of the political group with the largest number of councillors. The leader then appoints a cabinet from the elected councillors. Decisions about the running of the city are typically put forward by the leader for approval by the cabinet in a similar way to a directly elected mayor. The difference is that the leader is a councillor rather than a separately elected individual.

Similar to the directly elected mayor, the leader can represent the city, and in principle has powers to get things done. Unlike a mayor, the leader is dependent on keeping the support of sufficient councillors to maintain their leadership, which could be seen as an advantage or a disadvantage.

This is the system Bristol used from 2000 to 2012.

Committee system

In this system, the city is run by a set of committees each made up of elected councillors. Membership of each committee is in proportion to the overall number of councillors from each political party. This is already how regulatory council committees for licensing and planning are formed. That principle is extended to making decisions about other issues over which the council has control. such as social care, education and transport.

Decisions are made by votes in each committee, which means there has to be sufficient agreement on each issue for it to get voted through. Reaching agreement may take longer, but it allows each issue to be more fully discussed. However, unless there is a majority party that can coordinate all its councillors in a particular direction, difficult decisions may be avoided. The councillors can still appoint a leader to represent the city, but they do not have a special role in making decisions.

This is the system Bristol used before 2000.

The referendum choice

On the 5th May, the choice to be made in the referendum has to be between just two systems. When, in November last year, the councillors voted to hold a referendum, it was agreed the choice to be offered was to be between the current directly elected mayor and the committee system. These are the two choices that will be shown on the ballot paper.

The choice this time may be influenced by different issues than in the 2012 referendum. The introduction of the WECA metro mayor has taken away some of the responsibilities from Bristol, and WECA is now the main body through which additional government funding is channelled. Elections for councillors are now held in in their entirety every four years rather than a third being elected every year, leading to the political parties not having to be continually in ‘campaign mode’ and providing more stability on council committees.

What do others think?

Bristol Ideas, who run the popular Festival of Ideas, Festival of Economics and Festival of the Future City in Bristol, have invited several prominent Bristolians to contribute to the debate. The website
contains a growing collection of essays on the referendum including ones from former mayor George Ferguson, former council leader Simon Cook, existing and former councillors and several others. As you might expect, opinions vary.

Bristol Ideas, along with the Bristol Cable and Eastside Community Trust will be holding a debate on the referendum at City Academy, Redfield on Thursday 28th April, a week before voting takes place. You can find out details at

How to vote

All voters should by now have received a polling card to allow them to vote on 5th May. If you have not received your polling card, or have other questions on how to vote, see the council website

Roger Gimson – BCR Community Partnership

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s