How will Bristol’s new committee system work?

How will Bristol’s new committee system work?

Known informally as the Committee Committee, the group was set up to consider how Bristol City Council will face many key issues from May next year.

After the next municipal election, the council will be run by a series of committees instead of a directly elected mayor, but it’s far from clear exactly how that will work.

Questions include what powers a Council leader will have, how to get the public more involved in decision-making, how power can be shared out of City Hall and across Bristol, who represents the city to government and how quickly decisions are made in emergencies can become.

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Since the May 2022 referendum, a dozen Council members have met regularly behind closed doors to work out these details and hear evidence from experts. On Friday, the committee – officially called the committee model working group – met in public for the first time.

A key question facing the working group is what role and powers a future Council President will have. Regardless of future committees, the working group agreed that the council would need a single leader to represent the city politically, be a focal point for decisions and negotiate with Westminster government. But how much power should that one person have?

A future council leader would not only have less political power than the mayor, but would also be selected in a different way. Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees and his predecessor George Ferguson were both directly elected by voters, but council leaders in most parts of the country are elected by a majority vote of councillors.

This would allow councilors to boot out future leaders mid-term if they are unpopular, while requiring mayors to stay for the full length of their term.

George Ferguson and Marvin Rees will go down in history as Bristol’s only two elected mayors – Photos: Bristol24/7

“There are benefits to having someone that central government or key stakeholders know they can turn to,” said Marley Bennett, Labor councilor for Eastville.

“Sure, they may not have the power of the current mayor, but having a leader as a focal point is quite common. It’s really important to have that.

“And also so that the public understands who to go to for decision-making. The vast majority of Bristol residents will not necessarily understand this so they will have to deal with governance and having a leader will allow for that better accountability.”

Conservative Group leader Mark Weston added: “Under the new model Bristolians are unlikely to understand it at first, but as it settles I think they will recognize which committee and which chair you go to . I think that will change, it will be an educational experience for the Chamber and for the public.

“But I firmly believe that we must have someone at the top who can go to government, but that person is chosen by the council.

“Under the old system of leaders and cabinet, there were times when we booted out even the largest party. The Lib Dems used to be the biggest party, they got kicked out and Labor came in.”


Read more: “Bristol’s councilors try to steal their power by getting rid of a mayor”


But a future council leader should not be a “strong leader,” according to a key activist, and power should instead be shared across the city. Mary Page emerged as the Lib Dem mayoral candidate and later led the It’s Our City Bristol campaign to eliminate the mayoral position.

“The most important thing that 56,113 people voted either for or against was that we didn’t want to be ruled by someone who thought they were our lord and master,” Page said.

“We want a cooperative, consensual, modern political system that deals with the fact that it is no longer a bilateral system. It’s not just red and blue. It’s a system that has different perspectives from across the city, and that means devolved government.

“It’s absolutely critical that the[working group]looks at how you run a ward council, an area church committee, or a town hall meeting. It’s about inviting more people.

“I’m actually losing money coming here today, I had to make a decision whether to work or not. The public doesn’t get paid to be in the room; The Mayor is paid over £40 an hour to be in the room. But the public gets nothing or loses money.

“It is so important that the public has their say and that their opinions are valued. That’s what the majority wanted: more commitment, not less.”

Mary Page and other activists celebrate as Bristol voted to abolish the mayoral system following the May 2022 referendum – Photo: Bristol Post

Members of the public can already come to City Hall and have a say when important decisions are being made, but the current system is not perfect and is likely to change after May 2024.

For example, any person wishing to make a statement at a cabinet meeting has one minute to do so before being interrupted by the mayor and told him their time is up. Under the new committee model, members of the public could have much more time to speak out.

Green Councilor Guy Poultney said: “In full Council I am increasingly uncomfortable at the sight of a crowded public gallery filled with people who have come all the way to City Hall to raise an issue and counted down to a for 60 seconds become red light, at which point they will be cut off and told to shut up and walk away.

“And when too many people care about something, they have less time and less opportunity to speak up. Both assemblies and these committees give us a degree of flexibility to listen more to the public. I think we would be crazy not to take this opportunity.”

Weston replied: “I understand where you’re coming from, especially when you have a very difficult problem and 200 people show up. But at some point we have to deal with it because we have to make a decision. And right now in the full Council, time is limited.

“The public forum later eats up the time for debates. If we have meetings at 6 p.m. in the evening, I believe that after 9 p.m. a good decision is not made, everyone is broken, that is a reality of life.”

Page added: “I was in a situation where you had just a minute, no hesitation, no repeat or deviance, and then the hustling and delivery of a 10-minute monologue from the mayor. In return, why can’t member participation be capped?”

Protesters often gather outside City Hall – Photo: Ellie Pipe

Another question facing the working group is which committees should be formed. As well as committees reflecting current Cabinet positions – such as Education, Transport or Finance – some groups should be set up to represent specific parts of Bristol as power is currently too centralized in City Hall. This could mean new area committees or local councils.

Liberal Democrat Councilor Tim Kent said: “We will have more committees spreading that decision-making and increasing the time for the public to come over and engage with us. Very few come to the exam in public right now because what’s the point?

“Examination boards have no power. People go to the meetings where decisions are made. I think the one minute limit is too short, people should be given two minutes. If someone is petitioning and speaking on behalf of thousands, they should be given a little more time.”

Under the current mayoral model, important decisions follow a rigorous process before final approval. This includes any spending over £500,000 or a decision affecting people living in at least two boroughs of the city.

Officers bring their proposals for consideration by the Divisional Management Team and then in a meeting with the Executive Directors. Cabinet members are then informed and give their approval before the decision goes to the mayor’s office for approval and is eventually decided during a public cabinet meeting.

Some emergency decisions are made more quickly, for example to respond to flooding. But the lengthy process is designed to ensure that public money is well spent, and council officials are given several opportunities to politically test their proposals.

One question the working group faces, however, is who will participate in the committee model version of the cabinet communications. Options include committee chairs or vice chairs, or the entire committee.

Labor members of the working group faced questions about how they had reconciled their commitment to establishing the committee model of governance with criticism of the new model from others in their party. Earlier this month, Rees claimed the committee model would “slow down” progress on addressing housing and climate crises.

Outspoken activist Suzanne Audrey said: “For those who were against a committee system and are still in a position where your party has criticized the committee system, how do you make up for the fact that the committee system now wasn’t what you wanted ? are you in this group? There have been comments about ‘decisions not being made so quickly’.”

Veteran Labor cabinet member Helen Holland replied: “I’ve been here a long time. When the system switched to executive and control in 2000, we just carried on because we were given such a hand. The coalition government tabled its core cities referendums and Bristol voted for a mayor (in 2012) and was the only city to do so. Liverpool did at the same time, but without a referendum.

“We got involved because the interests of the city always came first. So that (the committee model) is the system that we were given and I don’t think you heard me criticize it. The people in this working group want to create the best possible system for Bristol.”

Main photo: BRE

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