BRISTOL desperately needs a powerful elected mayor to sort out its under-performing education and transport systems, a former government minister has said.
Lord Adonis said a Boris Johnson-style figure would rid the city of the “chronic instability” of its leadership, with seven new administrations in ten years.
The former Labour Transport Secretary and education minister is director of the Institute of Government, which has prepared a report for the coalition Government on the benefits of directly-elected mayors.
He said Bristol should be among the first cities to decide, in May, whether to have an elected mayor because its existing leadership model was “working particularly badly.”
But his comments on the city have been branded “snide, baseless insults” by city council leader Barbara Janke, who has written to the Government in protest.
Lord Adonis – who in July sparked a storm when he condemned the performance of Bristol’s secondary schools as “deplorable” – told the Evening Post an elected mayor could also help provide a badly-needed integrated transport system to improve links with the wider Bristol area.
He said: “It’s high time Bristol had an integrated transport system, and a mayor could bring that about. It’s also high time that Bristol’s secondary schools started performing above the national average, rather than below. An elected mayor could bring that about, too.”
In a letter to Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles, the peer said Bristol should join Birmingham and Leeds to vote in the first wave of referendums, as “the existing machinery of government is a source of chronic instability; the city has had seven changes of leadership in the last ten years”.
The Government’s Localism Bill, currently going through Parliament, would see residents in 11 cities across the country vote on whether to have an elected mayor.
The mayor would replace the council leader and chief executive, although they would be able to appoint a council officer to take on the chief executive’s duties, leading to claims the proposals have been “watered down”. Controversial plans to install the council leader as an unelected “shadow mayor” in the meantime have been dropped.
Lord Adonis said: “The critical issue for Bristol is whether its citizens are satisfied with the quality of the city council.
“They have a chance in May to vote to have a directly elected mayor, like London – do they think that would be an improvement on the status quo, which is clearly unsustainable with seven different administrations in ten years?
“The case for one is clearly strong, on the basis of instability of the city council. I hope the council will engage with this debate, and not just simply question the bona fides of anyone who criticises the current council.”
But last night Mrs Janke did exactly that, saying: “Lord Adonis is an unelected peer. What has he to tell people about how to improve our democracy?
“He has also got his facts wrong about Bristol. We have not had seven different leaders in ten years, we’ve had five – and it has not led to ‘chronic instability’, as he says. The last Audit Commission report said Bristol was performing well.
“The Liberal Democrat administration at the city council will continue to set itself ambitious targets for further improvements and to deliver on them.
“What might an elected mayor offer Bristol? Continuity? What happens if people want to get rid of a mayor between elections because he or she is seen to be failing?
“In any case, Labour had continuous control of our council for many years – and still failed.
“What about the cost – huge amounts of money spent, first, on a referendum, then on an election and then on the mayor’s no doubt very substantial salary? And this at a time when people are losing their jobs! Where’s the money to come from?
“We hear now that it’s proposed that a mayor might be able to appoint to his/her cabinet people who’ve never been elected. Isn’t that cronyism – at the taxpayers’ expense?
“Some people like the idea that a celebrity leader could be elected mayor. It’s more likely, I’m afraid, to be a party politician.
“Enthusiasts for elected mayors have a lot of questions to answer. In the light of Lord Adonis’ misinformation today, it’s clear a much stronger case for them has yet to be made.”
Mrs Janke has also sent an open letter to Mr Pickles, in which she outlines the council’s “disgust” at the way the Institute for Government report was prepared.
She told the cabinet minister the institute was seeking to influence policy “on the basis of false information and snide, baseless insults at the expense of a local authority that has gone a long way to turn itself around and continues to set ambitious targets for further improvement”.