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Guest blogger Toby Procter FRSA helped to organise Bristol’s RSA-sponsored mayoral debate - which saw 440 people pack into Bristol City Council House's hall. He reflects on the upcoming referenda in English cities on whether they want a directly elected Mayor.

Today there’s a Westminster event bearing on the referenda to be held on 3 May in nine of 10 English cities whose citizens are being offered the choice of a future directly elected Mayor or the status quo (Liverpool’s councillors recently jumped the gun, and elected to have a mayor on their own account). Those referenda are barely more than a month away, yet it’s doubtful that many of the electorates concerned have been made fully cognizant of the choices before them. 

The more lasting contribution of the project may prove to be the RSA having shown its mettle as a proactive collaborator with other local bodies in fostering local debate on issues of national importance

It was to bring the alternative futures of local democracy into a clear, non-partisan focus ahead of this referendum that I put my hand up at a Bristol RSA network meeting to organise a debate on the mayoral referendum issues in Bristol. The debate took place in February with a near-capacity audience at the city’s Council House, and spawned a good deal more local activity intended to engage the city’s voters in the issues, particularly among the business community and local media. But the more lasting contribution of the project may prove to be the RSA having shown its mettle as a proactive collaborator with other local bodies in fostering local debate on issues of national importance, as a progressive but essentially non-partisan catalyst for ideas. Some years earlier, RSA volunteers in Bristol provided a similar public service in gathering experts to present information and opportunities for debate on the now-doomed Severn Estuary tidal energy schemes. 

A progressive but essentially non-partisan catalyst for ideas

The Bristol mayoral debate took 10 months to bring to fruition, and would have been impossible without the active, practical collaboration of the RSA staff, Bristol University’s Centre for Public Engagement, the local branch of the Institute of Directors, the director of the Bristol Festival of Ideas, and as chair of the debate, Bristol-born broadcaster Chris Serle.

I hope networks of RSA Fellows elsewhere may find similar opportunities to foment fresh thinking on topics that transcend the usual partisan barriers, by mounting public events that need little more resources than the goodwill of effective local collaborators. And I hope they may have a lot of fun in the process, as we did.

Toby Procter is a freelance journalist and member of the Bristol RSA Network steering group.

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