It’s plain to anyone who interacts with Bristol City Council and its democratic processes that there’s a lot that could be improved. As a city that prides itself on being outspoken and different, we need to make changes that will respond to the changing dynamics of public discourse – now, rather than later.
1. Convince Government to allow us to keep our business rates now, not later
The fact is that without a bit of money for start-up, it’s difficult to get ground-breaking democratic initiatives off the ground. Bristol City Council has faced £50m of cuts each year since I was elected in 2013, which has hugely damaged our ability to innovate in our local democracy, most notably in the area of our Neighbourhood Partnerships.
George Osborne’s announcement at the Conservative Party Conference that councils will be able to keep 100% of our business rates from 2020 (we currently give 50% straight back to central government) is a see-through ploy to butter up local government (and Conservative councils in particular) to make the cuts seem “less bad”.
However, if – as Green mayoral candidate Tony Dyer proposes – we were allowed to keep those business rates now, in exchange for freezing council tax (a Conservative policy), it would free up £200m for infrastructure projects, with some pocket money for remodelling our governance structures for the 21st century.
2. Break Neighbourhood Partnership meetings down using inquiry days and the open space format
Resourcing Neighbourhood Partnerships should be the immediate first priority of our local reforms. Extra person power will give us the ability to sort out long-running issues, get community and campaign groups on board, and make local decision-making more meaningful.
Presently, the old format of sitting around a table discussing bins, parking and tagging does not necessarily inspire and motivate people to act. The best Neighbourhood Partnerships have begun to innovate, but it’s slow going with so few council staff to administrate and advise and so few residents aware that there is anything going on.
NPs need to marry the best of council work to the best of new democratic methodologies. When it comes to the former, the new, much-needed inquiry day format that brings in multiple stakeholders to the council scrutiny process (community groups, police, experts in their fields, etc.) would work brilliantly on the local level by delving deeply into seemingly intractable community problems to unearth community-led solutions. On the latter, we should look to instigate more open space meetings – which begin with a question such as “what do you want our streets to look and feel like?” and allow residents and other stakeholders to guide the agenda towards their own specific needs and interests. This leads to action-planning and grass roots organisation, rather than the “delegating up” to council officers that so often occurs.
Of course, with more resourcing we might eventually be able to trial participative budgeting, so that neighbourhood grants are given in a much more open and democratic way than however the councillors and council officers decide to carve the money up. If there’s money available and people can influence how it is spent, they are more likely to turn up and get involved.
3. Reform Full Council so it is built around debate and decision, not partisan point-scoring
As a result of the centralisation of the mayoral system, the majority of Full Council motions, speeches and budget amendments are built more around garnering stories for election leaflets and appealing to each party’s voting base than they are to a disciplined and purposeful attempt to change the council’s policies for the better. A meeting that has very little power to change anything is not a meeting that should remain, or at least remain unreformed. Ask any councillor what they think of Full Council, and watch as they attempt to be positive about what happens.
The current Golden Motion system – whereby each party group has their best motion debated once in every four Full Council meetings – should have real teeth to change policy. Motions that are carried should go to the next Mayor’s Cabinet meeting for decision, rather than simply remaining un-adopted, glorified petitions to the Mayor.
In a similar vein, we should extend the amount of time and space we give at Full Council meetings for motions (at the moment, it is just 30 minutes), and be reflexive to the issues that the public bring to the table. Far too often, the public issues raised are left behind and forgotten about after the Public Forum – or there isn’t even time for all of the questions and statements to be taken. This switches people off from the feeling that they can influence their city’s politics, and explains why the majority of the public leave halfway through the meeting.
A further change would be instigating a form of e-democracy, so that some level of public participation could be had while people are waiting patiently to be heard. Using the #BristolLive hashtag does not really cut the mustard anymore.
4. Adapt or scrap the Mayoral system to decentralise power and decision-making
There’s no denying that the Mayoral system gives increased visibility and external profile for Bristol’s most prominent politician. However, it brings very little else to the city, democratically speaking. It adds to the sense that local government is something done to people, not something that is an ongoing conversation aimed at bringing more people into decision-making processes.
We were recently granted the right to change to a different governance system, but not until 2022. So while the long-term goal is for a decentralised system where councillors and the public take mutually-informed decisions in non-partisan meetings, for the time being we will have to adapt the mayoral system for our own needs.
This means giving scrutiny committees much more information and power to form policy, rather than just react to it. There are a lot of warm words about this, and progress has been made. But until scrutiny has the same information as Assistant Mayors, and the same ability to set direction, we will still have a system that is too top-down, and unable to adapt to the concerns of councillors from both inside and outside the “Mayoral bubble”.
5. Allow Bristol to be the test-bed for proportional representation for local elections in 2020
When it comes to electoral reform at Westminster, the big two parties are the turkeys, and they won’t vote for Christmas. However, their carcasses aren’t on the line when it comes to making the same change – proportional representation voting via the Single Transferable Vote – at the local level.
In many areas of the country, the Tories and Labour would benefit electorally from a change. Labour would be able to build councillor bases in areas of the south that have hitherto been True Blue. Conservatives would be perhaps able to get a foothold in suburban and/or semi-rural areas of their much-publicised Northern Powerhouse. Ironically, voting reform could deliver additional seats for both parties, while giving voters the opportunity to vote for independents, Greens, UKIP, Plaid and Lib Dem councillors, free of tactical voting, for their local council.
Bristol has – in comparison to many other cities – an exciting and pluralistic multi-party politics. Communities and Local Government Minister Greg Clark has already shown he is willing to throw Bristol a bone by accepting the decision to allow Bristol to decide how it is governed. Perhaps he’ll go one step further and allow us to be a pilot for electoral reform in our next set of local elections in 2020, so our democratic system begins to match more closely the way that the people of Bristol vote.
Rob Telford is the Green Party group leader on Bristol City Council. He is writing this in a personal capacity.