England & Wales Democracy, devolution and governance

The future of mayors in England – what Bristol’s referendum result means for the future of levelling up and devolution


Photo by Martyna Bober on Unsplash

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As results come in thick and fast, relatively little attention has been paid to Bristol voting to scrap their elected mayor.

Unsurprising perhaps. Not everyone shares our passion for the technicalities of local governance and there will be no immediate change in power as the incumbent mayor, Marvyn Rees will continue until the end of his term in 2024 and had already indicated that he wouldn’t be seeking re-election in any case.

Nonetheless, this is a significant result.

Firstly, because it weakens the position of one of the small number of Labour local government figures with national and international profile and deprives Labour or anyone else of that platform in future.

Secondly, because it raises (or reiterates) questions about the future of elected mayors themselves. The Levelling Up White Paper makes clear the Government’s preference for elected mayors presiding over unitary authorities and these are the vehicle for the most extensive level of devolution currently on offer (though, as we have argued before, this is not that extensive).

We should note of course that Mr Rees is a city mayor and not part of the wave of metro mayors that accompanied devolution deals from 2015. And, of course, Bristol will still, somewhat confusingly, fall under the West of England elected mayor.

We can’t ignore the fact that Bristol – the only one of ten cities that voted for an elected mayor in the 2012 mayoral referendums – has just voted to scrap it. Nor, is it the first city to do so: Hartlepool, Stoke-on-Trent and Torbay have all been down this road already.

Several county devolution deals foundered over the requirement for a mayor back in 2015/16 and the current Levelling Up policy does not seem to be driving much enthusiasm for them either. The vast majority of counties say they will be pitching only for as much devolution as they can get without a mayor.

Mayors can be a highly effective leadership model. You can see that in almost any other country in the world; and Andy Burnham, Andy Street, Ben Houchen and others demonstrate it here. Mayors provide an answer (though not the only one) to some important questions about governance and accountability.

Their detractors have not always been as clear as they might be about alternative answers to these questions. Nonetheless, we seem to be hitting an impasse between a government that is committed to mayors and a local government sector and public that seem less than enthusiastic about them. Does something have to give?

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One thought on “The future of mayors in England – what Bristol’s referendum result means for the future of levelling up and devolution

  1. Excellent. Very pleased to read this. As a former Chairman of my District and Mayor of my Town Council.
    Add to that I have won 13 straight elections, all cleanly fought, to my Town and District and held every position that has been on offer except leader-never wanted to be Leader, did enough of that in my Business life.
    I can say unequivocally that this is just another way to centralise. Living on the coast I know that rationalisation and centralising only leads helps those at the top and and at the centre. The rest of us pay for it, in every sense. The real problem is Whitehall. We need another The Northcote-Trevelyan Report on the Civil Service.

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