Bristol is now the UK’s leader in ‘authoritarian democracy’.

Bristol is a lively city, rich but bohemian, with a large creative sector, possibly the most physically attractive large city in the UK.  Over the past five years it has set out on a little-heralded experiment – an experiment in authoritarian democracy, which is unique in the UK.  Its pioneer is Bristol’s mayor Marvin Rees, who has installed a system which discourages debate, rewards conformity, and concentrates almost all power in the hands of one man. The claim is that the new system will be highly efficient, particularly insofar as it redresses inequalities affecting deprived citizens such as BAME and working class communities, and more generally will “get stuff done”. 

Bristol’s experiment began after it was made possible by the Localism Act 2011, which triggered referendums on transitioning to directly elected mayors in 10 cities in May 2012.  Only one city, Bristol, voted for change.  In Bristol the vote in favour of an elected mayor was won by the campaign of architect George Ferguson, an independent (who became the city’s first elected mayor). Other people in favour included the local Conservative Party, the local paper the Bristol Post, and a Bristol academic advocate of directly elected mayors, Professor Robin Hambleton.

In the second election for mayor in 2016 the personal nature of the contest helped attract attention, and turnout greatly increased from 27.92% to 44.87% of total eligible voters.  Labour’s candidate Marvin Rees more than doubled his previous total from 31,259 votes to 68,750 votes, while George Ferguson barely moved his, from 37,353 votes to 39,577 votes.[i] 

One result of Bristol’s mayor following the (no-doubt well-meaning) advice of Professor Hambleton, is that the authoritarian potential of the elected mayoral system has been greatly developed. The key architecture of the new system is the ‘One City Plan’ – Hambleton’s core idea – administered by a newly-established mayor-appointed City Office. ‘One City’ has six boards which represent different facets of the city’s life – all appointed by the City Office, i.e. by mayor Rees. The One City logo features in most Bristol publicity and is constantly promoted as a “bold, imaginative idea” with (at latest count) 546 goals stretching till 2050.[ii] 

The boards are entirely appointed by the mayor through the City Office.  Bristol’s 70 elected councillors have been relegated to deciding planning applications, local CIL and s106 decisions, voting on the annual budget, and asking awkward questions (“scrutiny”). They have only minor other roles.

One City boards consist of academics, business leaders, and people linked to the mayor’s political networks from around the city. 

This sounds fine until you realise they have no actual power – they can only recommend – and that people who are not sympathetic to the mayor are not appointed. Those who become critical or awkward can at any time be removed.  Ideas that the mayor does not approve of are not welcome.

Bristol also has a cabinet appointed by the mayor. 

However cabinet members, who are all Labour councillors, tend not to show up, as all decisions are in fact taken elsewhere – by the mayor’s inner circle in the City Office.

There was once a local participatory system in Bristol known as the Neighbourhood Partnerships (NPs) which emerged from the Localism Act 2011. These popular community groups were established when the Lib-Dems had a majority and had formal power to influence planning in local areas.  They met 4 times a year to allow communities to set out their vision and establish general policies to guide neighbourhood development.  But Rees abolished them. 

The problem with this structure is obvious.  Quite aside from being undemocratic, citizens cannot get ideas through to the mayor.  Power is extraordinarily centralised.  To communicate with the mayor you need to belong to one of his political networks, or be invited by him to sit on a board. 

How in this system is the mayor to be told that he is in the wrong?  The mayor never appears in public without questions being pre-scripted or (alternatively) being in control of the microphone.  Under him there are no US-style “town hall” meetings at which anyone can speak.  His message is at all times rigidlly controlled. 

In contrast, the previous mayor, a naturally gregarious man, allowed anyone to ask him questions, openly, in front of any audience. He could be seen night after night at events, listening, talking, interacting. Sometimes he would be annoyed by questions, but he put himself on the spot as – one might think – an honest if perhaps incautious leader should. 

One department which has expanded in Bristol (in an era of cuts) under the current administration is the city’s public relations department. The PR department sends out a continuous stream of “city-happy” messages, many of them referencing One City. These are purportedly for the common good but of course all implicitly reference Rees, who continuously reminds the public that he created One City.  One result of this extensive PR work has been an unprecedented number of awards won either by Rees or by the city.

Mayor Rees’ isolation behind a wall of PR may be why increasingly odd ideas have emerged unfiltered from the mayor’s office.  The most important was the announcement that Bristol should become a high-rise city, made in Rees’ first annual speech of October 2016. Tower blocks, a fondness for which he appears to have developed in the US, suddenly became planning policy in this previously mid- and low-rise city, and a new Head of Planning – previously a developers’ PR – rewrote the city’s Supplementary Planning Document to encourage them, incidentally causing a massive escalation of land values as developers eagerly bought up land, which in turn made the provision of human-scale housing difficult. Although towers are not part of what makes Bristol an attractive city, and were not mentioned in Rees’ lengthy pre-election manifesto (so taking Bristolians entirely by surprise)[iii] the mayor has complete control over cabinet and policy, and despite enormous disquiet from architects and amenity societies expressed in the largest-ever response to a statutory consultation (87% of respondents were opposed to high rise),[iv] passage of the Supplementary Planning Document (“Urban Living”) encouraging tower blocks was assured. The impact on a beautiful, historic, city gently nestling around a harbour will be profoundly damaging (see the Bristol Civic Society on tall buildings [v] and this link). 

Another unilateral mayoral decision was to move the city’s long-planned new arena, which was on the verge of being built, from the city centre to a disused airfield on the city’s outskirts.  The justification for moving from a pedestrian-friendly to a car-only  location (incidentally discouraging concert-goers from shopping and dining in the city centre) was to sell city-centre land at high prices.  The implications for traffic and the centre caused every councillor including all Labour councillors to vote against the idea. Yet the plan was pushed through.

Land sales in the centre are the motivation of another plan, to run a dual carriageway up the river Avon towards Bristol’s iconic suspension bridge – again, to clear city-centre land and sell it off to high-rise investors. This is likely to destroy Bristol’s major tourist attraction, the view of the gorge and the historic suspension bridge.  Unfortunately Rees has developed a doctrine that elected local councillors should not be included in such decisions because they are ‘political’, so instead of the area’s residents and councillors being represented in consultations, a group of business interests and mayoral supporters from around the city with almost no local representation were assembled to take forward the new road scheme, and declared to be a “consultative” body.[vi]  Which then met in secret. 

The mayor has frequently promised to build an underground in Bristol, another strange top-down plan. Any feasibility study would show that an underground is impractical in Bristol because the cost of boring down wouldn’t be offset by a high frequency of service such as you would get in London.  Trams are feasible, but an underground isn’t.  But the idea is regularly surfaced.

Why do so many unrealistic ideas surface?  Why are they pushed so hard?  The simple answer is that the institutional checks which existed under the previous system have been abandoned.  The mayor now has enormous power.  But combined with power, there is also a question of character. Mayor Rees appears to believe that people who criticise his policies always do so for self-seeking political reasons, or for other reasons which can be discounted. He will not engage intellectually, he will not consider alternative evidence, he will not accord those who criticise his ideas the benefit of the doubt, he believes that their motives are always questionable.  He knows what is right and what is wrong, and that is that.

As a manager, Rees has an unfortunate record.  In his first two years, half his senior staff left, including a CEO he had insisted on recruiting against advice who took a large payoff.[vii] 

The mayor’s egocentric management style has caused unhappiness among his own Labour Party councillors. Five Labour councillors have so far resigned amid allegations of leadership bullying. The resignation statement of the latest, Jo Sergeant, noted that Rees sees local councillors as an “annoying inconvenience” and has “no respect” for any members other than those Labour individuals in his “inner circle”.[viii]  She said he set up the City Office and One City Boards as an “alternative council” to make policy in a way that “circumvents democratic process”.[ix] She describes the Bristol Labour party as being “focused on power for power’s sake and beset with a culture of fear and bullying”.

Other Labour councillor resignations include leftists Harriet Bradley and Nicola Bowden-Jones (who also complained of bullying), Eastville representative Sultan Khan (who said he was tired of “infighting”), and former head of housing Paul Smith, believed to have found it impossible to do his job given pressure from above. Not all bullying is from the mayor, but none is ever dealt with, even when complaints are made. That is partly why only 17 out of the 37 Labour councillors elected last time are running for re-election.

Labour councillor Mike Davies, standing down but not resigning, noted that: “There has been such a disparity between my hopes before I got elected and the reality of being a councillor under the mayoral system…It has been a demoralising experience.  Under the mayoral system so much experience, talent and expertise has gone wasted.”[x]

The mayor’s relations with opposition councillors have been even worse than those with members of his own party. Councillors emerge from the council chamber shaking with rage and humiliation after the mayor, who controls microphone time while others’ responses are strictly time-limited, insults and condescends to them.  Members of the public are often treated with disdain in chamber by the mayor. Rees is self-confident (he gives easy and relaxed interviews, which always impress visiting journalists), but intolerant of criticism.  His view, often expressed, is that he is right, while those who disagree with him are playing politics and wasting his time.  This doesn’t make for easy relationships. 

The mayor also bullies journalists.  Democracy reporter Adam Postans was target of a day of mayoral ridicule and snide jokes (“it would be nice if we had a journalist in the chamber” – titters from mayoral sidekicks) to which he had to listen but could not respond, and was then publicly berated in City Hall corridors – all because he had described a new city waste disposal plant as a ‘dump’ (it was later pointed out that the city’s official web site calls it a ‘tip’).[xi] 

Who are you bullying today, Marvin? Seen on 21 April at 39-43 College Green, opposite City Hall

One aspect of Bristol’s total centralisation of power is that the administration keeps decisions secret until the last possible moment.  Why isn’t clear – no rationale is given – but it makes local participatory democracy impossible. 

An example: in his 2017 annual State of the City Address Rees suggested that the Bristol harbour’s western end, known as Cumberland Basin, should be a priority for new housing. This is a sensitive area.  The view up the Avon Gorge of the suspension bridge is internationally famous as the most recognised image of Bristol.  It draws large numbers of tourists and is a source of great pride and pleasure.  Therefore one might have expected extensive public engagement.

In January 2018 a feasibility study was commissioned from Arup to reconfigure the area’s transport.[xii]  In February 2018 Rees made an Asian sales tour and took with him a sales brochure (which was not made public).[xiii]  When this was leaked, residents of the Cumberland Basin learned that a new name, Western Harbour, had been given to the area where they lived. Rees’ brochure claimed the project would unlock 15-20 hectares of developable land potentially providing 3,500 homes with a gross development value of over £1 billion. Yet none of the people living in the area, nor their councillors, nor the wider city, had been consulted about the homes plans.

Given Rees’ well-known preference for tower blocks, residents were worried.  In early 2018, locals pressed the Mayor’s office for community involvement.  However to date – three years later – no community involvement has been undertaken. In February 2019 the growth and regeneration committee (a scrutiny committee), discovered that senior council employees had given engineering and design consultants Arup “free rein” to assess 10 options for the area.  Yet elected councillors had not been told.

Bizarrely, the boundaries of the affected area kept changing, apparently to get more land to sell off. In the Bristol Local Plan of February 2018 the “highly desirable location for residential development” for 3,500 homes was only north of the river.[xiv] By March 2019, the proposed housing area also covered land south of the Floating Harbour, including some of the loveliest and best-used riverside parkland in Bristol. 

20 months after the Arup report was commissioned, neither the report, nor the brief, had been made public.  When the scrutiny councillors were finally allowed to see it they were shown into a private room, one by one, supervised, and were not allowed to take notes. Liberal Democrat councillor Mark Wright said that in his 12 years as a councillor he had never experienced such secrecy from Bristol City Council. He told BBC Radio Bristol that it is “completely remarkable for the council to act in this way”.[xv] 

Finally a public consultation was launched in late 2019, during the August holiday period.  But only 3 out of 10 routes Arup had studied were included (and none of the others were shown).  Little detail was given: large proposed roads were shown as mere pink lines, making it impossible to assess their impact, and there was no indication of separate pedestrian and cycling routes, and no computer visualisations. No option was given to repair the existing bridge, which most people considered the most viable option. 

The public response was overwhelmingly negative, including a stinging critique from the Bristol Civic Society.[xvi]  But these objections were ignored, as they had been previously with the Urban Living SPD and most other planning consultations. In November a “consultation” group to implement the plans was set up consisting of Rees’ friend business leader John Savage, plus other leading business figures in the Savage circle, plus people from Rees’ political networks. But no elected councillors were included, and only one local group representative. 

Perhaps mercifully Covid-19 then closed down the discussion. With an election looming the risks of ignoring public opinion were mounting, and the pandemic’s impact combined with the climate crisis caused a worldwide change of attitudes to new city road systems. In the following year the council finally promised to “go back to basics” with a “meaningful” public consultation, after 4 years of not listening and not engaging. But the new list of suggested consultees are mostly entirely unrelated to the area (but closely linked to the mayor) such as WECIL (where his election agent is director), Knowle West Media Centre, Ujima Radio, Voscur, and St. Paul’s carnival. Rees has since made clear that he considers opposition to the plans to be NIMBYism, the product of white privilege, remarking for good measure that many opponents live in ex slave-owners’ houses.[xvii]

This secretiveness and the disdain are entirely typical, repeated in every consultation on the built environment held under Rees.  Typically the public competition for the most important site in Bristol – Canon’s Marsh – was held in secret, and decided in secret. The public are not to be allowed to see the losing bids.  Asked by Lib Dem councillor Mark Wright why the bids were being kept secret, Rees replied that the competition submissions were not being kept secret, they were merely confidential. What leader does not allow his citizens to see the submissions for an architectural competition affecting the most prominent site in a beautiful, historic city? 

Importantly, the work of the council’s scrutiny committees has been made almost impossible by secrecy. The administration has limited councillors’ access to information, reduced time available to read it, and limited the meetings held. Scrutiny is an important council function and is needed to keep a strong executive in check.  Scrutiny was problematic under the previous mayor, but the issue has grown exponentially.

A typical tactic is to delay production of vital papers.  During the Arena decision-making, 842 papers were released on a Friday afternoon to be read for a meeting a week later.  As already noted, during the Cumberland Basin saga it took 20 months for the consultants’ report to be made public.  In November 2019 the chair of the Overview and Scrutiny Management Board (OSMB) complained about the process surrounding scrutiny of delays in publishing Bristol’s clean air proposal papers meant members had only three days to examine more than 1,000 pages of reports. [xviii]

The mayor’s response to such complaints has been to criticise councillors for the creation of ‘fake debates’, arguing that ‘one of the death-knells of getting things done in Bristol is to begin to get people on these benches to play ping-pong with it’. [xix]  To “play political ping-pong” is a favourite Rees expression for making points he disagrees with. 

Bristol’s administration under Rees closely supervises its citizens.  £90,000 is paid to social media company Impact Social to track online platforms,[xx] with citizens’ social media mentions of the mayor and City Council being sent to the Head of the Mayor’s Office and to the mayor’s policy advisers. Though the Impact Social contract says “information from the analysis will be available to anybody upon request,” it took an investigative reporter, Joanna Booth, to make these reports public. Conservative Leader Councillor Mark Weston commented:  “This is the first time I have heard of the company ‘Impact Social’ and, given the apparent cost of their contract and supposed non-partisan status, I am surprised that these monthly reports are not more widely circulated or distributed.”  Liberal Democrat leader councillor Gary Hopkins added: “We knew nothing about this and it is quite staggering in its gall. The cost of the Mayor’s Office is quite appalling in any case and this is disgraceful.”

Almost all initiatives – bicycle racks, special needs education, or whatever – must now be channelled through One City, through the City Office, or through other partner network organisations. This has had a chilling effect on Bristol’s lively tradition of popular participation.  No agenda is likely to progress unless framed in terms likely to appeal to the mayor or his appointees, and channelled through organisations already connected to the system.

An example: a structure to make grants to organisations in BAME and deprived communities has been set up – the Bristol Impact Fund – but to apply you must explicitly commit to the ideological goals of the administration, such as being ‘equality led’, and ‘supporting community empowerment’ or ‘be in a strong position to collaborate with Bristol City Council and the One City Partnership to understand and work to address inequality caused by poverty and low income, class, racism, sexism, disablism, heterosexism or ageism and bring about meaningful change for people experiencing these inequalities.’[xxi]  Voscur, Bristol’s long-established voluntary action organisation, has now effectively integrated itself into One City, channelling large amounts of the charitable funds it receives into the same networks. The newly-established social investment organisation “CityFunds” channels another £10 million in a similar direction.  These organisations are very interested in supporting something called “Asset Based Community Development” which speaks a religiose language of self-empowerment. The effect is that money is given to people who speak this language, i.e. speak the same language as the politicians in power.  There is an obvious danger that giving money on ideological grounds rather than objective criteria will engender a classic “Tammany Hall” structure, named after the corrupt New York political machine which gave patronage to low-status groups in exchange for votes for New York Democratic Party candidates.  Such corruption seems an almost inevitable outcome of Bristol’s rapidly developing system.

An interesting feature of many of these organisations is that (like the mayor and John Savage) they have an explicit religious commitment. CityFunds is evangelically-led, and the new city-funded Bristol Housing Festival is also entirely staffed by evangelicals (it even has its own chaplain).[xxii]  The mayor’s engagement with the US California Bethel Church, a spirit-healing cult with its own much-expanded version of the Bible, has been probed by reporter Joanna Booth. [xxiii]

One surprising claim made by Hambleton is that the One City system will reinforce local ‘place based’ democracy against the forces of neo-liberal globalisation. [xxiv] In practice the opposite has happened. One City represents, at least partly, an alliance of the mayor with business interests. The distant genesis of this alliance was the formation in 1989 of The Bristol Initiative (TBI), which stemmed from a Confederation of British Industry (CBI) project to increase business involvement in local politics, partly based on the view that for many businesses, their success depends on the competitive performance of the city in which they are based. The Bristol team was formed in 1989, funded by subscriptions from local firms. John Savage, a charismatic Christian businessman with local connections, was chosen to head a small full-time secretariat.[xxv]

The Bristol Initiative has morphed into an enormously influential network. Today, almost no important aspect of city governance is free from the influence of the (renamed) Bristol Chamber of Commerce and Initiative (BCCI) and of its regional extension Business West, exercised through a vast network of BIDs, Chambers of Commerce, and cultural organisations.  Some see it as the modern-day equivalent of Bristol’s previous ruling elite, the Merchant Venturers, whose copybook was blotted by involvement in the slave trade.

Although Savage backed Rees’ opponent George Ferguson as continuity candidate in the 2016 mayoral election, he then became a kind of mentor to the new mayor, based on a previous relationship and friendship. BCCI personnel, with their philosophy of pro-capitalist social endeavour, now interpenetrate the One City system.  John Savage’s 2011 book “High in Hope” strongly influenced Rees’ infrastructure projects.[xxvi]  The resulting business-mayoral alliance completely bypasses elected Labour representatives and places BCCI’s business interests at the heart of the city’s decision-making. 

Cultural institutions play an interesting role in this new “consensus”.  Bristol considers itself a vibrant, cultured city. But this is a recent phenomenon. Strong traditions of municipal cultural provision – good cultural buildings, prestigious symphony orchestras (CBSO in Birmingham, the Halle in Manchester) – are typical of Britain’s industrial centres. But Bristol’s traditions and history are different. They are less marked by the Labourist and collectivist traditions which in Manchester and Birmingham generated institutions of local cultural pride, so effecting a reconciliation between labour and capital.  In contrast, it has been said that Bristol’s business leadership has been “strongly marked by the severe and joyless aspects of Protestant non-conformism”, and that partly as a result, in the past the city generated relatively weak cultural institutions. [xxvii]

The situation was partly transformed by BCCI, which hit on culture as high-impact way to reinvigorate Bristol, then suffering from the UK’s recession. It adopted a pattern of city boosterism through prestige cultural projects typical of many cities in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s (e.g. Bilbao’s Gehry-designed museum).  A local firm of arts consultants, Boyden Southwood Associates, was appointed and published a report in April 1992.  The academic Ron Griffiths noted that: “To the delight of the arts community, the report articulated a powerful set of arguments in support of increased city council spending on the arts” despite severe central government pressure to cut spending. The report argued that in the ‘competition of cities’, a cultural strategy could help Bristol consolidate its position as a regional capital and “become (again) a city of European significance”.[xxviii] The central message was that the city currently fell below its potential.  It needed a cultural strategy to maximise potential – and compete against other cities. 

One interesting aspect was the stress placed on the built environment.  The report recommended that an ‘arts and entertainment zone’ be developed in the city centre to take advantage of institutions such as the Watershed and the Arnolfini. It also advocated prioritising an existing proposal for a new centre for the performing arts on Canon’s Marsh, to act as the ‘jewel in the crown’ of the arts and entertainment district. 

Due to a lack of national funding, the centre for the performing arts was never built and the intended location remains empty. But a charitable body was formed, the Bristol Cultural Development Partnership Ltd (BCDP) with board members from Bristol City Council, South West Arts (SWA) and the BCCI. A Head of Cultural Development (Andrew Kelly, formerly the director of the Kirklees Media Centre in Huddersfield) was appointed and took up his post in April 1993.

One of Kelly’s most successful and popular initiatives has been The Festival of Ideas, set up in 2005. The Festival is a series of invited talks given by prominent authors and academics. It invites feminists, egalitarians, anti-colonialists, third world voices, people with off-beat ideas, and a brilliant cross-section of the world’s leading writers, economists, artists, and thinkers. It presents a Bristol which is tolerant, open to ideas, experimental, progressive, indeed radical. It has been a sparkling performance, and Andrew Kelly is rightly celebrated for his achievement.  But what it does not do, is raise radical issues within Bristol.  There are few ‘for and against’ debates about the most challenging issues that Bristol faces, unless there is effectively already a consensus that the current administration endorses, or a local struggle which lies safely in the past, or a debate between politicians within the safe confines of the four yearly election cycle. The Festival of Ideas plays almost no role in debates about Bristol here and now. 

It is reasonable to ask what is the effect of the Festival of Ideas.  What does it mean to give the impression that all ideas are tolerated and open for discussion, when in fact the Festival of Ideas does not in fact hold (many) discussions about Bristol?  Do people even notice?  Is it important that they do not notice?  Does the rich panoply of choices, speaking of liberation, radicalism, free choice, and cultural quality, the active thrust of intellectual cross-fire, seduce the audience into forgetting that here, in this particular city, no such choices are being presented, that there is no intellectual cross-fire about possible futures open to the city?  If so, we may ask whether it functions as a conservative force under the guise of liberation. Herbert Marcuse’s phrase “repressive desublimation” springs to mind.  Is it realistic to expect radical challenges to ‘how things are done’ to find a place in the Festival, when its head is an appointee of council and business interests?   Is it realistic to expect it to be anything more than a pleasant surface, the kind of ‘culture’ that speaks of righting injustices elsewhere or supporting the day’s conventional obsessions, without offering discussion of actual choices that the city faces?  This – and the evisceration of the local press by the internet age – is the cultural background to the strengthening of the Mayor’s power in cooperation with business interests.  

To return to the theme of business-administration co-operation, Bristol’s business interests now have a Labour administration which gives them better access to policy-making than they ever previously enjoyed in Bristol’s post-war history.  Business, and the dominant faction of the Bristol Labour Party, are now working together, supported by the administration’s propaganda machine. 

What of Rees’ actual track record? He argues that “getting stuff done” is the key test of his administration, and of the One City system. So let us draw up a balance sheet of achievements and failures. 

Rees’ five years do not seem to have brought many achievements.  The administration had met surprisingly few of its campaign promises.  The mayor’s core campaign promise was housing: “We will build 2,000 new homes – 800 affordable – a year by 2020.”  On the council’s own figures in 2019/20, 1350 homes were built of which 312 were affordable. Goram Homes, a newly-established council housing company, has not yet built anything. 

Completing a city-centre arena, a major project of the previous administration which was shovel-ready, was promised – but was not done.  Greater transparency and accountability were promised (“We will be democratic. We will listen to communities and devolve greater powers to neighbourhoods”) – clearly not achieved. Strengthened Neighbourhood Partnerships were promised – but they were abolished.  Promises on 20 mph zones and RPZs were made – and not kept. An integrated transport network was promised – but not delivered. 

The administration has been financially accident-prone.  The city’s power distribution company Bristol Energy, started under Rees’ predecessor, was allowed to build up more than £50 million in losses, although opposition councillors had been warning against continuing to invest since 2016. Poor scrutiny arrangements were a key cause of losses building up.  Other losses due to inadequate scrutiny include £60 million of unexpected rebuilding costs at the city’s concert hall, Bristol Beacon, previously Colston Hall.  

On the positive side, the administration has promoted more BAME staff within the Bristol Council bureaucracy, and increased the heft of BAME networks associated with the mayor such as the Black South West Network, an important achievement given past relative neglect of such communities, not least within the Labour Party itself. 

Turning to active harm as opposed to mere failure to do things, the encouragement of tall buildings, their appearance all over the city,[xxix] will cause enormous damage. 

Bristol is a beautiful city which it makes absolutely no sense to spoil by a program of building tower blocks in the city centre. They are unnecessary to produce densification.  They are more expensive to build, so will deliver less affordable housing, a key administration goal. The evidence is also clear that tall buildings cause unhappiness – a survey by Robert Gifford (2007) concludes: “the literature suggests that high-rises are less satisfactory than other housing forms for most people.’[xxx]

Tall buildings are also less sustainable than mid-rise.  The science suggests that they use dramatically more energy than other buildings on an ongoing basis, in fact 100% more energy per square metre. This has been shown in research by UCL’s Professor Philip Steadman, using a large data set of 612 UK office buildings, new and old, large and small, air-conditioned and naturally ventilated.[xxxi] More important, tall buildings also use more “embodied energy”, i.e. energy consumed during construction – maybe as much as 60% more “embodied energy”.   Over the lifetime of a building, embodied energy is typically more important than ongoing energy use.

Finally, it is generally agreed that tall buildings will harm Bristol’s appearance.  Bristol’s beauty is a key factor which draws tourists and skilled incomers.  The more beautiful a city is, the urbanist Richard Florida has pointed out, the more successful it tends to be at attracting new jobs and new residents, including the highly educated and affluent ones.[xxxii]

To summarise, Bristol’s misconceived tall buildings programme has been pursued by the administration without understanding the issues, and without taking proper advice. 

It seems impossible to separate this ongoing mistake from the power structure the mayor has built up which has reduced his ability to hear outside advice and the views of his citizens, causing him to adopt unwise policies. 

As Griffiths noted in his article in 1995, the strategy of cultural boosterism adopted by Bristol (which partly motivated efforts to keep Bristol’s built environment beautiful) always depended on a delicate coalition of forces – a coalition between a socially-oriented business network, and (on the other hand) politicians and citizens who desired a city beautiful, which they suspected would also be a city prosperous.

That coalition has now morphed, as a result of a complete shift in views by one element in the “alliance” – our current mayor. Business improvement districts (BIDs) are enthusiastic about the change, since in any particular location BIDs will always put locally increased receipts from new tall buildings above the city’s beauty. One might have expected BCCI to challenge the change in policy, but BCCI has been a supporter of the high-rise push (as evidenced by Destination Bristol’s positive comments on high rise planning applications). Result: the administration has encountered no opposition, except from local campaigners, to pushing through permissions for high-rise blocks in the centre’s most sensitive locations – against the wishes of most Bristolians and most residents. 

Griffiths’ 1995 words now seem prophetic:

“It is hard to avoid the suspicion that the cultural strategy may come to be used essentially as a vehicle for attracting private sector funds for the redevelopment of underused sites in the city centre, and that wider cultural development issues may become secondary. In other words, there is a possibility that, under certain configurations of balances of forces at work, the support and goodwill that emerged around the cultural strategy could lead to it (and the partnership arrangements cautiously constructed to carry it forward) being used as a smokescreen, or legitimizing device, to conceal a harsher property development agenda, whatever the original intentions of its authors and sponsors.”[xxxiii]

That is exactly what has happened. 

The mayor’s unhappy performance has now put on the agenda a question: should the elected mayoral system be abandoned?

In reality, the system has pros and cons. 

Elected mayors tend to be more ‘visible’ (which may be why national politicians find them easy to deal with).  But though national politicians have long been attracted to the idea the elected mayors deliver better local government, evidence is lacking that directly elected mayors improve economic growth, citizen welfare, governance, or, indeed, succeed in what is often claimed to be a major benefit, securing resources for their cities, despite the claims made for them.[xxxiv] 

Elected mayoral systems do however concentrate immense power in the hands of one person.  Is that a plus or a minus?  It partly depends on the character of the person who is elected. Since the electorate has usually only been briefly been exposed to most candidates before the election, and so cannot make a proper judgment, the character of the mayor is (in a sense) largely a matter of accident.

If the mayor’s visibility is the aim, the system has been successful in Bristol: our mayor is all over the world, attending conferences and receiving awards.  If democracy is the aim, research clearly suggests that the public now feels less able to influence the political system than before the elected mayor was introduced, i.e. participatory democracy has been reduced.[xxxv]

It would seem likely that most Bristolians value their ability to participate in the democratic process more than they value the visibility of their mayor. We should also worry about the closed features of the One City system, and about the ongoing reduction of councillors’ powers of scrutiny, both of which reduce the diversity of views reaching the mayor.  We should worry about the unwillingness of our mayor to interact directly with his electors, and the expansion of his public relations apparatus against a background of reduced media budgets, and the lack of fora where open, democratic discussion takes place. 

Too much power has been put in the hands of one person, and the city is clearly suffering















[xv] Well reported here:


[xvii] See: In Marvin Rees’ online talk, he presented his view of the community response to development in Western Harbour as NIMBYism: see the section on Western Harbour at about 33 minutes in.







[xxiv] Robin Hambleton (2019): The New Civic Leadership: Place and the co-creation of public innovation, Public Money & Management, DOI:, and Hambleton, R (2015). Leading the Inclusive City: Place-based Innovation for a Bounded Planet. Bristol: Policy Press.

[xxv] Griffiths, R. 1995: Cultural strategies and new modes of urban intervention, Cities, Vol 12, No 4, 253-65


[xxvii] Griffiths, R. 1995, quoting Roger V. Clements(1969), Local Notables and the City Council, Macmillan & Co

[xxviii] Boyden Southwood (1992a, p4) A Cultural Strategy for Bristol: Final Report. Boyden Southwood Associates, Bristol.





[xxxiii] Griffiths, R. 1995

[xxxiv] This issue is well discussed in Ed, David Sweeting (2018): Directly elected mayors in urban governance – impact and practice. Bristol: Policy Press


Author: Matthew Montagu-Pollock

I settled in Bristol in 2011 after 23 years in Asia, of which 16 were in the Philippines, mostly working as an investigative journalist in the Euromoney group.