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On a very damp Wednesday evening in Bristol, 400 people packed themselves into the Council House chamber to take part in a debate on whether the city should vote in favour of having a directly elected mayor.

Credit: Dane Comerford / University of Bristol

I say take part as it didn’t take long for the audience to get in the mood and warm the place up. We were barely ten minutes in before the first heckle, which set the tone nicely for the ensuing two hours.

We were barely ten minutes in before the first heckle, which set the tone nicely for the ensuing two hours.

As someone who has lived in Bristol all my life, the debate on the merits (or not) of an elected mayor, are of significant interest and now, after the event on Wednesday, I think I am starting to form a personal opinion. Which is considerably further along the decision making process than many in Bristol; most residents appear to be unaware that there is a referendum taking place, let alone any of the details, or the pros and cons involved in making this decision.

This was the fundamental motivation for embarking on this project of awareness raising. The RSA joined forces with the Festival of Ideas, University of Bristol and the Institute of Directors, three key organisations in the city, to design an event that would give a balanced presentation of the proposals and hear from both the supporters and those opposed to the idea of introducing a directly elected mayor.

As a process the four partners worked together over a period of six months to put together a balanced, expert panel, find a suitable venue and ensure that as many local media outlets were engaged and willing to take part in the debate as possible. As with all partnership working we each had our own motivations for wanting to be a part of this process; and we all had different perspectives and approaches to getting things done. But we were all motivated by the need to provide an unbiased platform that would extend public knowledge and participation.

Working together we hosted the largest live debate on this subject to date. We reached a significantly larger audience as news of the debate and final results on the night were broadcast on local television, radio and carried by print and web based media.

One of the arguments for an elected mayor is that it would help to get things done; that Bristol was too hamstrung by party political bickering. Perhaps, if local government was able to follow a similar methodology as the four host partners in this debate, and work together in a collaborative and collegiate fashion, then this “need” would never have arisen in the first place.

Perhaps, if local government was able to follow a similar methodology as the four host partners in this debate, and work together in a collaborative and collegiate fashion, then this “need” would never have arisen in the first place.

Chris Luffingham is the Fellowship Networks Manager for the South West, West Midlands and West

@BillyLuff

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