Last night’s debate about whether we should have a Mayor for Bristol was busy, energetic and felt like the start of something. The referendum whether to have a mayor will take place on local election day, May 3rd. If a city votes in favour of having a mayor at its referendum, that city will then hold an election for its first mayor on 15 November 2012.
So, Bristol, what should we do? While the event was stimulating, my tweets became quite grumpy. Bristol is a city riven by the legacy of slavery. The dispute about the naming of the ‘Merchant’s Quarter’, today Cabot Circus, touched deep and painful wounds. The audience and panel were predictable in their makeup (myself included). We were overwhelmingly white, middle class, middle-aged and often Lib-Dem.
Even amongst those attending, there was a genuine issue over incorporating female voices in the debate. Women were simply not selected to put their questions in their panel (2/47 according to one mid-session tweet, though this improved a little by the end). The physicality of the process, the recognising of familiar faces and the conventional location and format seemed to exclude even some of those who had turned up.
Bristol is, as the familiar litany tells us, home to Aardman, Concorde and the Watershed. We pride ourselves on being an innovative city, an EU Green Capital with great strengths in the creative industries, digital talents and implementing sustainability. We can take this as a challenge as much as a fact. Are there ways that we can draw on this creativity, this innovation to widen the debate, to engage a wide range of Bristolians from all communities? Can we present something of what it means to be Bristolian both in the process of choosing whether to have a Mayor and (if it happens) in the choice of Mayor him (somehow it seems likely to be him) self?
This thought is underpinned by the wonderful session organised by the ever fabulous Festival of Ideas on Daniel A Bell and Avner de Shalit’s new book The Spirit of Cities: Why the Identity of a City Matters in a Global Age. The central suggestion here is that a city has an ethos, which they define as ‘a set of values and outlooks that are generally acknowledged by people living in a city.’ The examples Bell and de Shalit use may seem obvious, reductive even. The claim that there might be one, single, ethos runs against pluralistic understandings in academic geography and our everyday experiences in real life. Can we really sum cities up in this way: Jerusalem (religion), New York (ambition), Oxford (learning) and so on. And yet, and yet …
Not only is Bell and de Shalit’s more subtle and engaging than a summary can present but it also seems to resonate. How is Bristol different from Birmingham, Bradford, Bristol, Coventry, Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle Upon -Tyne, Nottingham, Sheffield and Wakefield, the other cities that will also have a Mayoral referendum. Let alone Liverpool and Leicester who are already pretty much there? Might we argue that creativity, innovation and non-conformism are central to the ethos and even identity of Bristol as a city?
It’s this thought that perhaps what makes Bristol special, its ethos, even if we cannot agree or reduce it to a single word, might inspire us to have a creative, innovative and non-conformist debate about whether or not to have a Mayor. Yes, the arcane intricacies can send most of us to sleep. But the Localism Act has tapped a vein of civic pride, here as elsewhere. Bristolians are proud of their city and I suspect, can think of a huge range of creative ways to engage people in discussions about the running of their city.
We might ask Aardman to make a short summarising the debate (expensive but perhaps influential in asking for tax cuts?!); graffiti for and against (perhaps symbolising that classic Bristol ambivalence to street art); cartoons of what would Brunel say … There are far more creative people out there than me. But if, and it’s just one suggestion, the spirit of Bristol as a city is creativity, then let’s use it in the debate on the Mayor.