Dig up ancient gold or silver in your garden and there’s a strong chance you’ll need to declare it as ‘treasure’. Which means, usually, that ownership gets claimed by the Crown, originally under the feudal doctrine that every man must have a lord and so abandoned property reverts to the paramount lord, the Queen herself. A cynic might add that Saxons burying treasure to keep it from the Normans should expect to have it seized, as that’s what happens to defeated folk.
There are four areas only where treasure does not revert to the Crown, areas known as ‘treasure franchises’, where the right to claim treasure has been granted away. In Cornwall and Lancashire, the right belongs to their respective Duchies. In the Square Mile, it belongs to the City of London Corporation. And in Bristol, evidence suggests, it belongs to the City Council.
That is one of a number of ways in which Bristol is strikingly different from other provincial cities. Another is that its Lord Mayor is the only one to be styled ‘Right Honourable’ without official sanction. A third is that about a half of Bristol’s administrative area is out at sea. The authority of most councils on the coast ends at low water mark but the Bristol boundary takes in the deep water channel from Avonmouth to the Holms, in its scale a unique concession. Bristol’s prized status as a ‘City and County’ is by no means unique, though it is the only case in England comprising land in more than one geographical county, and in 1996 Bristol became the only English city with its own Lord Lieutenant and High Sheriff. The Great Charter of 1373 which first granted county status resulted from the complaints of its busy merchants that, given the poor roads in the region, it was inconvenient to attend the royal courts at the county towns of Gloucester and Ilchester. And it appears that the text of the charter was more a negotiated deal than simply the centre’s pleasure handed down.
As with any long-established city, the question of who actually runs Bristol isn’t easy to answer. Conspiracy theories abound. The Society of Merchant Venturers, perhaps? Or, equally select, the Antient Society of St Stephen’s Ringers? The Freemasons are always a good bet. (And Bristol’s have a history of doing things their way: in the early 19th century a visiting official from London sent to challenge the way Bristol lodges did things was deftly returned to sender. Some of the Bristol rituals therefore remain unique.) Even the political parties haven’t always shown their current subservience to HQ: before 1974, the Conservatives didn’t field their own candidates for the City Council but stood as the Citizen Party, nominally an anti-socialist coalition.
In being the only one of ten cities to accept the Coalition’s offer of a directly elected mayor, Bristol has added another badge of distinctiveness to the civic collection. It’s not because the case against municipal dictatorship – in the classical Roman sense now re-emerging – isn’t still sound in principle. It is, and the votes elsewhere have shown that it carries weight, just as they have also shown how worryingly wrong the Coalition was to try to achieve a ‘Yes’ outcome through bullying. If Bristol didn’t need to be bullied, if it has made a change it cannot now undo without fresh legislation, however ghastly the experiment becomes, then this speaks to the very nature of the city today.
That nature is a troubled one, and has been for a long time. The City Council has had seven Leaders in ten years. With the rise of three-party politics in Bristol over the past two decades, no party can secure majority control for long and speak with genuine authority on the city’s behalf. Yet that has been, in terms of a rigorously democratic analysis, the city’s own choice, albeit of the ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma’ variety. If it cannot unite behind a single party it is because it is a city whose diversity of outlooks, whose very richness, now prevents that. That diversity will still be there under an elected mayor. Concentrating power in a single pair of hands will enable decisions to be made but many of those decisions will be widely and deeply unpopular. To elect a Bristolian Caesar is to entrench one vision and, for the next four years, silence the others. Bristol’s politics will most likely get nastier now that more is at stake, now that the opportunity for ever-adaptive compromise has been discontinued.
We have always argued that union is not the answer. Division is. The answer is not to concentrate and centralise power but to deconcentrate and decentralise. While pundits love to pore over figures for turnout, it’s a measure of passive democracy, not active. The real measure we should be interested in is how many folk are able to take part in decision-making all the time, not just at elections. How many elected representatives does the area have, making decisions in the community and for the community, about ALL the things that matter locally, not just those that the London regime currently allows us to decide?
In 1972, Bristol’s council had 112 members, for a population of 425,300 (1 per 3,797 inhabitants). Today it has 70, for a population of 441,300 (1 per 6,304 inhabitants). The deterioration in that ratio tracks the deterioration in the city’s ability to make its own decisions. By 2020 the population is estimated to have risen to 460,800. So, pending an electoral review, that means one (largely powerless) councillor per 6,583 inhabitants. Or one mayor with most of the power (1 per 460,800).
An alternative vision for Bristol wouldn’t see 70 councillors surrendering power to one mayor. It would see them handing back power to the communities they represent, by allowing urban parish councils to be set up. Not area committees – puppets on strings – but independent bodies with their own mandate, their own budgets, staff and premises. In Mercia in the 1990s, a breakaway group of Labour politicians in Walsall tried to do just that. They proposed to divide the borough into 55 self-governing ‘neighbourhoods’, based around natural communities varying in size from 800 to 12,000 inhabitants, with an average of 5,000. Needless to say, national politicians soon crushed the idea. (It just wasn’t what Tony wanted to hear.) But it may be on its way back, with the first modern parish council in Greater London about to be set up, at Queen’s Park in the City of Westminster. Parishing urban areas isn’t easy. It’s true that cities are still made up of the villages they grew out over, but boundaries have become blurred and new communities have emerged around major new developments. Nevertheless, it would be interesting to see what a Walsall-style map would look like, in Bristol and in other Wessex cities too.
Managing complexity demands multi-layered governance, with every wider area respecting the autonomy of every narrower area within and valuing its contribution to the whole. The idea that a directly elected mayor can and should control everything that goes on in Bristol is wrong in two directions. The need for decentralisation is the focus of one. The need for regionalisation is the focus of the other. And that’s because it will rapidly become apparent that there are limits to any mayor’s power, resources and influence that can only be overcome by a regional tier of government. To resurrect Avon might seem a way forward but is in fact a deliberate half-answer, too close to localities to leave well alone, yet not strategic enough to be able to stand up to London bullies. Nothing less than Wessex will do.
Take transport. Bristol should by now be well on the way to building a metro system like Newcastle’s, linking the centre to the suburbs and far beyond the city boundary. A mayor won’t have the means to deliver one. A pathetic guided bus network, maybe, but that’s no way to set the city up for the future. Bristol is the largest commercial and retail centre west of London, a natural communications hub for a self-governing Wessex region. Today it has much less influence over transport decisions than the Isle of Man. The money that used to be ours, the money that could be spent doing what’s needed, isn’t here. It’s in London, being spent on white elephants.
Or take schools. The relatively poor performance of state education in Bristol has been a topic of conversation for decades. No blame can attach to the city’s politicians when one remembers the context in which they strive for improvement. As an old city, Bristol has an astonishing number of old, independent schools, endowed by long-dead merchants (and slave traders). Add to that the London cross-party consensus that the best schools should be hooked out of council control and turned into academies, and money thrown at free schools to further undermine inclusivity, and the new mayor starts with a patchwork quilt full of holes. A Wessex region, if it retained any education powers at all, that could not be further devolved, should use them to support local communities instead.
Not for the first time, the Coalition’s pseudo-localism gives responsibility with one hand while removing power with the other.