Council takes another step towards future 

A NEW constitution for Bristol City Council has been approved by a vote of all councillors, apart from Bristol mayor Marvin Rees. From May the council will be run by several committees of councillors instead of a directly elected mayor.

Bristol voted in a referendum in May 2022 to scrap the role of the mayor after concerns that too much power was concentrated into one politician. This will finally take effect from Friday, May 3, the day after the next local elections.

For months since the referendum, a group of councillors have been thrashing out the new rules on how the council will be governed. The new constitution was presented during a full council meeting on Tuesday, January 9, and passed by a vote that was almost unanimous.

Every councillor present in the chamber voted to pass the new constitution, however Mr Rees abstained from voting. He has previously warned the council might struggle without a clear figurehead leading the organisation, speaking to the government and other groups.

Green Councillor Guy Poultney said: “This new constitution represents a significant step forward for the city — a move to a less centralised, more collaborative way of working. The constitution reflects compromise between parties and members with different values and assumptions.”

Labour Cllr Marley Bennett added: “Drafting something as broad and as important as a constitution is never going to be easy. But so many of the major decisions we made in the committee model working group passed unanimously — or nearly unanimously. This is a constitution that all parties have shaped and have influenced.”

Instead of a mayor, directly elected by voters, the council will be run by a council leader, chosen by a majority of councillors. This is how most councils in the country are run. Councillors in turn are chosen by voters, during local elections.

Critics of this system say voters are one step removed from deciding who is in charge. Supporters say giving powers to councillors to decide the council leader allows them to boot out anybody unpopular in between local elections — which can’t happen with mayors.

The new constitution will be reviewed after six months.

The change back to a committee system in May ends a 12-year experiment in city governance.

It follows a referendum in May 2022, after growing anger with how the mayor, Labour’s Marvin Rees, and the previous mayor, independent George Ferguson, seemed to many to have too much power.

One potential spark that led to the campaign to scrap the mayor was when Mr Rees appointed only Labour councillors to his cabinet — a small group of politicians each in charge of parts of the council.

After the local elections on May 2, eight policy committees will take charge of different parts of the council. Each committee is likely to have nine councillors from different political parties, while the committee chairs will play a similar role to current cabinet members.

The policy committees will cover children and young people; economy and skills; environment and sustainability; public health and communities; housing; health and adult social care; transport; and strategy and resources.

 In addition, nine area committees will cover different parts of Bristol, spreading decision-making powers away from City Hall.

By Alex Seabrook, Local Democracy Reporting Service