On Thursday 10th March, witnessed by a nation awaiting the Chancellor’s devolution project, Bath and North East Somerset held a vitally important referendum. Presented to some 100,000 residents was a choice: would you like an elected mayor, or the current practice of a head councillor, to run your city?
Despite a weak turnout which – despicably – saw only one vote cast at Bath Spa polling station, the overwhelming majority of voters decided against the new mayoral position. In a city which is resoundingly Conservative, an elected mayor offered the chance to shake-up the system, overturn the status-quo, and return democracy to a mud-stuck Tory kingdom.
With the current system a group of councillors, elected in local elections with notoriously low turnouts – thus giving a weak mandate – lord over the entire region, without much oversight and following party-political mantras. These councillors are predominately white, elderly, wealthy males, the sort who have a habit of governing us Brits, and who have unlimited terms in office. The result is that a local oligarchy, largely obeying the Conservative Party’s diktats, governs a thriving region with a sense of entitlement reminiscent of the pre-1688 monarchs and their ‘divine right’ to rule.
Not surprisingly, in the closing weeks before the referendum letters began to appear in letterboxes announcing – with just a tinge of McCarthyism – that an elected mayor would undermine our devoted representatives in the council, would increase bureaucracy, and would cost a significant amount of extra money. However such talk is nothing short of nonsense. An elected mayor, especially one who is party apolitical, can serve as a driver of change, forcing complacent local policymakers to innovate in the way that any modern cosmopolitan area must do to survive in the modern world. One only needs to look towards London, sometimes described as a first-rate city in a third-rate country, to understand the revitalising effect that a competent leader can have.
Having previously worked in a parliamentary constituency in Nottinghamshire, I am well-aware of the challenges posed by entitled local councillors who believe that their entrenched and fixed opinions are the only way forward. I am well qualified, therefore, to forewarn that with the current system this university has little hope of securing the necessary change to the cityscape that would allow our institution to accommodate its student population, in both residency and study.
Whilst it is true that a mayor would have been paid a salary far higher than the average earned in the UK, the economic, social and political benefits that Bath would have accrued certainly outweighed the cost. This city is one with great potential; a world heritage site, only minutes from Bristol and an hour from London, with a top-ten university and a burgeoning tourist industry. One can only imagine how, with proper management, our home could have become a world-class peripheral frontier of London.
The lack of residents, especially students, who chose to engage in this revolutionary political process is disheartening at best and enraging at its worst. Democracy requires that informed, intelligent and aware individuals participate in the decision-making process, and for a top-ten university to fail so opaquely to engage in this referendum is a dismal outcome. Particularly at a time when students are in need of extra housing, and are blocked by a stagnant local political system, a mayor could have had the foresight to bring positive change to the area. Ben Howlett, an established opponent of students in Bath, is surely not the man to trust with the future of our university, and we as the student community just failed to capitalise on what was surely the best opportunity to secure change for this city.