The city of Bristol brings to mind exciting parts of British life in the early 21st century, such as the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston, the masterpiece series Skins, and less discussed but not any less fascinating, its three local mayors.

If you are keeping count, here they are: There’s the ceremonial lord mayor, which changes annually; the metro mayor for the West of England Combined Authority, Dan Norris; and mayor of the City of Bristol, Marvin Rees. 

There are signs, however, that the current arrangement got to be a little overcrowded: Following the end of Rees’s term in May 2024, the position of mayor of Bristol could be abolished, and replaced with a committee system of governance. A referendum on this proposal will be held this May, asking voters to decide between the two systems, following a motion passed by Bristol City Council proposed by the Liberal Democrats and passed with the support of every party on the council except Labour. 

It’s hard to know which way the referendum will go. Campaigners to keep the mayoralty may worry that the recent council results were driven by a “kick Marvin” vote, sending a message that re-election had come through the most gritted of teeth. Rees, on the way out, hit out at critics in his usual forthright style, saying “no pro-democracy movement I’ve heard of argues to take away a vote from people”.

The alternative model on offer is the committee system, where, alongside meetings of the full council, decisions are made by, well, committees of councillors, appointed in proportion to election results. Anti-mayoral campaigners argue this system is more proportional, and therefore more democratic, former Green councillor Rob Bryher argues:

“The main advantage of scrapping the mayoral system is to disperse power more evenly across the council and provide a more consensual and accountable process for scrutiny and policy formation. At the moment, everything runs through one person and with no checks on that power. We need a much stronger council chamber as a whole if we want Bristol to be run effectively and with the interests of residents in mind.”

Currently, the only real time Rees needs to get authority from the council is a budget vote, and between them Labour and the Greens have a 2/3rds supermajority on the council, so there is nothing stopping a “broad left” budget deal being thrashed out (in theory), and Labour alone has the 1/3rd of the seats required to eventually pass a budget if needed. 

The main argument for the mayoral system is that the whole city is able to elect a figurehead that means that everyone’s vote, be they in safe Labour St George, or in true-blue Bishopsworth, count the same. Under other systems a Tory voter in Bishopsworth, despite electing two ward councillors every election until the end of time, is never going to have representation in a cabinet system – only those in wards held by the parties running the council are truly represented by those in charge. Labour Councillor Marley Bennett commented:

“The Mayoral model is the most accessible model of local government, as people understand who the decision-makers are and how to hold them to account. This direct accountability leads to better decision-making. Only a tiny fraction of people are hyper-engaged with local politics and claim they would understand who was responsible for making decisions by committee. Whilst they may dominate debates and Twitter timelines, such views are not representative. I’m not convinced there is a widespread appetite to switch from a Mayoral model which has delivered visible leadership for Bristol.”

Those who wish to bring back the committee system, however, argue that it allows for a proper series of checks and balances. Committees must by their very nature be a cross-party group, allocated in proportion to the makeup of the council (which in Bristol would give both Labour and the Greens roughly a third of the seats), but any committee can have any decision overturned by a vote of the full council. Committee supporters argue that making decisions in public rather than behind the closed doors of the cabinet leads to better decisions being taken. 

On that last point, your mileage may vary. The truth is that bad decisions in Bristol have taken place under both systems; the committee system, for example, is responsible for building a dual carriageway through the middle of Queen Square, and the mayoral system likewise has the dubious honour to have moved the site for Bristol Arena from “Arena Island” next to Temple Meads station to an out of town site on the former Filton Airfield, almost in South Gloucestershire.

There has been no polling done, nor is there likely to be any done for this referendum. With the referendum likely to have extremely low turnout, decisions will be made on very tight margins. At this point, otherwise small decisions might become relevant again – for instance, the fact that the last of the Blairites with any actual power, Dan Norris, is yet to make a statement about it; or the fact that the Greens, the biggest electoral threat to Labour, backed scrapping the mayoralty. One such small decision that could play a big role in the referendum is that a previous council motion to hold the referendum on a “Mayor v Leader and Cabinet” basis failed to pass, with most Greens voting against. The Green’s insistence on the less commonly used Committee system as the alternative before voting for a referendum could make the difference in a vote expected to have a tiny turnout.

Fundamentally, the question of should Bristol have one less mayor might not seem like high stakes politics, but it is in local government where the big decisions are first felt. This was the case with austerity, where David Cameron’s complete upheaval of the British state was dressed up in moderate, common sense clothing, should a Labour government ever come, decisions like this will play an important part of the sort of model they wish to pursue. How an ostensibly left leaning city such as Bristol decides to organise itself moving forward will have implications on the fortunes of the Labour party, those of other left wing parties and of the region.

This article is part of The Social Review’s series on Metro Mayors and Local Government. If you have an idea for an article, please read our pitching guidelines and email us at