Abdi Mohamed – Bristol is going to the polls on 5th May to elect its second mayor in less than four years – and 70 councillors at once for the first time. But in community circles, voters have been trying to understand how far has the city travelled with the mayoral system and what kind of mayor do they want to elect.
The mayoral system has, of course, brought both opportunities and challenges to the city. In addition to creating a platform that is not attached to party politics, it has enabled local residents recognise the leadership of the city. A 2015 study report by Bristol University found, “a directly elected mayor in Bristol has led to a dramatic increase in the visibility of leadership in the city.” On the other hand, having a directly elected mayor has reduced the power of the councillors. They were “less positive than from public managers and leaders from business, community and voluntary sector who agreed that the introduction of the mayoral system had ensured the interests of Bristol are better represented,” the study notes.
However, the mayoral system has not served the interests of all communities in equal terms.
According to the recently released Bristol Quality of Life Survey (2015 – 2016) the number of residents that agree the mayor is improving the leadership of the city fell from 40% in 2014 to 38% in 2015.
The persisting educational underachievement and lack of opportunities for children and young people in inner-city wards is still of serious concern. These wards have the poorest performing schools, both in primary and secondary schools. For example, former headteacher of Easton Primary School was struck off from teaching in November last year for fiddling with the SATS results, and the City Academy Bristol is in special measures for the second year running.
“Education remains a community concern,” says Said Burale from the Bristol Somali Forum. “People must elect a mayor that is committed to addressing these educational problems and the higher rate youth unemployment in certain areas of the city.”
In fact, equalities have deteriorated too. BME manifesto for race equality states that equalities have been ‘standstill’ and ‘institutional racism is still endemic’ in the city. Bristol churches manifesto also agrees that the local governance system is more ‘institutionally racist’ than ever. “Fair representation is needed,” says Khalil Abdi, Chair of Bristol Horn Youth Concern. “We should elect a mayor that is bold enough to tackle inequalities; a mayor that strives to tackle homelessness and creates opportunities for all; a mayor for the people of Bristol.”
“The only time I feel included is during the election campaign, when politicians knock my door and convince me they will solve all our problems if we elect them,” stresses a local resident who wants to stay anonymous. “As a Somali woman, the local elections don’t mean much to me because politicians become invisible after they get elected. And although I don’t believe they will keep their promises, I vote for them – same as many other Somali friends – because I believe that I will be fined if I don’t cast my vote.” This indicates that there is a need to increase awareness of how to hold politicians to account.
A shop owner in Stapleton Road says, “During the [last] mayoral election, George Ferguson came to the shop and asked us to vote for him. But we did not [understand how we can] hold him to account.”
“Many people used to come to the shop early in the morning to use fax and photocopying services and the internet, but nowadays they don’t come because of the parking restrictions. They aren’t allowed to park before 10.30 am so I lost a lot of customers.”
In addition to the controversial Resident Parking Zone (RPZ), homelessness, education and skills, and employment opportunities for the youth are among the list of issues that voters – particularly those who live in the inner-city wards – want to be addressed. Community members also talked about the need to improve engagement and participation.
Although Bristol has been named as Britain’s best city to live in, the council has been the most difficult to work with. Lack of ‘a follow-up acknowledged response of any issue that the community raises’ has, undoubtedly, made Somali youth feel ‘rejected, isolated and voiceless’. According to minutes of a meeting of Bristol Somali Forum in 2011, the council agreed to ‘provide training for Somali youth workers to become qualified youth workers’. The issue is still outstanding and at the present time there is no single Somali youth worker employed by the council. Why?
The simple answer is that the council takes divisive, tokenistic approach to community engagement and development. The only way that these damaging practices can be tackled is to overhaul the broken system – specifically the delivery of community engagement and development, and participation.
“It is not about who to vote for, but it is about what kind of person do we want to elect as a mayor,” says Khalil Abdi. “George Ferguson has struggled to deal with homelessness, educational underachievement and BME youth unemployment. But others [other mayoral candidates] are not offering alternatives.”
“Our votes cannot be taken for granted – not any more. Therefore, we must sit down with them [all the mayoral candidates] and listen their answers before we decide who to vote for. We must equally inform them that we are going to hold them accountable.”
Electing a mayor that is serious about creating equalities of opportunities for all is a pressing need. We must elect a mayor that promotes and champions the social and economic benefits of equalities; a mayor that will be an ambassador for the business community and the diverse population of this dynamic city.
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