So, the Bristol Post have launched their Make Bristol Greater campaign, aimed at raising the debate about what the Bristol city region should be called and what its governance should look like. Their comment piece picks out the geographical and political constraints holding Bristol back, and for once I find myself agreeing with much of what is said in the article. Bristol is so tightly constrained by its administrative boundaries that don’t even cover the whole urban area, that decision making about strategic issues across council boundaries is like a game of ‘chance’ or ‘bluff’, based on little more than the small minded politics of jealousy and competition.
We constantly compromise and reduce decisions to the lowest common denominator because we are afraid to upset anyone. Bristol and the city region loses out as a result, because very few are brave enough to talk about Greater Bristol. Instead we mutter about the West of England, which to others from outside the area means absolutely nothing – it’s not a place many can relate to or can even locate because it doesn’t really exist, it’s purely a term we have ended up with because we couldn’t call it Greater Bristol! If the ten councils that make up the Greater Manchester Authority can live with it being called Greater Manchester, why can’t we call our area Greater Bristol, wouldn’t that make more sense?
But the problem is of course much deeper than what we call the place – that is just indicative of the problems we face in terms of lack of collaboration, partnership working and joined up thinking. The physical and boundary constraints placed on Bristol exacerbate the problem. You only have to look at the lack of development to the South and West of Bristol to see how skewed decision making is, when the only option for growth around Bristol is to extend further to the North, into South Gloucestershire, an already ‘overheated’ and ‘overdeveloped’ area. But Bristol, the council, the mayor, have no control over how the city can grow because those areas are outside the council’s administrative boundaries and squarely in the hands of other politicians and officers. To me this has never made sense, ever since the abolition of Avon County Council, the idea of real strategic planning for transport, housing, jobs and growth has eluded us. But what is the answer? It’s probably not about reinventing Avon, but it might just be about a combined authority – this seems to work elsewhere and is surely an option worth pursuing, but sadly our local councils don’t seem able to come to agreement on that idea.
Whatever you think about the current elected mayor for Bristol, the role has certainly changed the way politics in the city works and has changed people’s perceptions of the city to some extent – with greater visibility both within the city and externally – something Bristol has undoubtedly lacked in the past. Some interesting work by Bristol University, with UWE, makes this point and has highlighted just how perceptions have changed as a result of having a directly elected mayor, see Bristol Civic Leadership Project Briefing. So when I read an article in the Birmingham Post about ‘regional mayors in a more federal UK‘ the idea sounded interesting. It’s part of Labour’s proposal to devolve power to metro mayors with control over combined authorities, which already exist in other core cities (Manchester, Sheffield, Liverpool) and could be a key part of the answer in Bristol. Imagine a powerful mayor, with control over the Greater Bristol area, able to make strategic decisions about housing, transport, infrastructure and skills, with devolved power and resources? Wouldn’t that overcome some of the current problems facing Bristol?
Interestingly the comments from Chuka Umunna are not about devolving to LEPs (unelected, undemocratic bodies) but about the creation of combined authorities and directly elected metro mayors – a much better solution than some of the original suggestions to give power and resource to the LEPs. I think his only mistake is to keep talking about ‘regions’ rather than city regions, but otherwise the proposals seem to provide a potential opportunity for an area like Bristol and one worth further debate.
Postscript – I feel compelled to add something to this post as a result of the announcement about a metro mayor for Greater Manchester (3-11-14) based around the Combined Authority area of 10 local councils. This is an interesting move forward in the debate about devolving power and responsibility to city regions, if based on the right kind of formal structures. It’s also a recognition that elected city mayors need to cover a wider area than the tightly bound city authorities they currently have responsibility for. Once more the Manchester area has stolen a march on everyone else, organised itself and bid for the opportunity, leaving other cities scrabbling around in its wake. It’ll be interesting to see how the Bristol city region responds to this, if at all?