Should Newport follow Bristol and have its own directly elected mayor?

WITH economic austerity continuing, does Newport need a figurehead elected by all of its residents?

In his first interview for the Argus, mayor of Bristol George Ferguson has suggested that Newport could fall between the “stools” of Cardiff and Bristol if it doesn’t have a strong way to champion its advantages.

But he stopped short of stating whether the city should follow Bristol and replace its system of local government with a directly elected mayor.

The topic of directly elected mayors is due to be debated in the civic centre this September, with voices in Newport both for and against due to speak at the Newport Civic Society event.

Mr Ferguson, an architect by trade and known for his red trousers, became Bristol City Council’s first mayor in 2012 after voters plumped for the system in a referendum.

He was reluctant to say to the Argus whether he thought the city needed a mayor, but suggested that provincial cities needed a champion.

The independent mayor said: “I’m wary of specifically recommending a particular city as to whether it should have a mayor or not, that’s up to the city itself.

“But what I absolutely believe is that cities should have a clear, recognisable champion who beats the drum for the place. That probably particularly applies to cities that don’t have capital status, that are provincial cities.”

Mr Ferguson said he was “relatively ignorant” of Newport’s politics, but said: “There is always a danger with a strong Cardiff city region and a strong Bristol city region that unless Newport has a strong means of championing its advantages, it will fall between two stools.”

It is really important for the strength of the Severn region that “not everything is concentrated in the two principal cities”.

Mr Ferguson said there is “strength in having the leader of a city that has the mandate from an election right across the city”.

He said: “That inevitably leads to greater recognition and greater authority, in terms of representing the whole city, than you get from someone who was elected by a part of it and then selected by the party that happens to be the biggest party, or the majority party, to represent the city.”

But do mayors become hate figures? It was perhaps inevitable that Mr Ferguson would become the focus of some of Bristol’s politically aware street artists.

In one case his face has been superimposed above the word Obey, in the style of the design by Shepard Fairey originally featuring Andre The Giant, on stickers posted around Bristol city centre.

“That’s a great graphic. I love it, I think it’s hilarious,” he said.

“I think any figure of authority is going to be a hate figure for some. I walk freely around the city and I get a huge amount of support from people coming up to me.

“There are always going to be people who are satirical or even angry. I accept that, I’m very resilient.

“I’ve had coffee thrown over me, I’ve been knocked to the ground at an anarchists’ fair. I face up to all these things and I don’t ever duck anything. I feel I have the authority to do that.”

The Newport Civic Society debate on September 11 has been spurred on by Nick Webb, a Newport Tory activist and co-chairman of the society, who is in favour of elected mayors.

He suggested that as the society spends “an awful lot of time looking at the history of changes in how we are governed” — and with Newport being the city of Chartism — it was “probably appropriate” that the society looks at how the city is governed now.

Mr Webb argued that one opportunity of an elected mayor, even when the mayor is from the sizeable council group, is that they “still have to reach out and talk to people beyond their group to understand the views of residents beyond their core base, in a way that you don’t have to when you are reliant purely on one electoral ward getting you elected and maintaining the support of 50 per cent plus one of the councillors on your group.”

However, he is keen to distance his personal views from what he said will be a “rigorously impartial debate”.

Councillor Matthew Evans, Newport’s Tory group leader, is yet to be convinced it is the best way forward “because you are giving power to one person”.

“It can be very dangerous having one individual with so much power within an organisation.”

Although he can see some benefits, he said “if you have a good leader of the council you should be able to achieve as much as a directly elected mayor.”

Debbie Davies, cabinet member for skills and the council Labour group’s business manager, said: “For our city we have got more important things to focus on at the moment. Newport is such a small city — would it create more of a power struggle than a strategic direction?”

Chris Evans, Labour Rogerstone city councillor, has long supported the principle of elected mayors.

“The ideas of a lady or chap banging the drum for Newport, raising its profile and amplifying the positives, is very appealing,” he said.

“When things go wrong, people increasingly want a figure to hold to account and to explain themselves. An elected mayor, by definition, wouldn’t be able to ‘go to ground’ when things go pear-shaped.”

The debate takes place at Newport civic centre on September 11 at 7.30pm.