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?
An all powerful mayor with no checks and balances and who demeans democracy in Bristol is a dangerous person to take on a whole region. We have a big problem here. And surrounding regions don’t want anything to do with him…or Bristol as they would lose their own autonomy. As much as it would be a great idea to have Bristol expand into surrounding areas, the mayor is so personally disliked that this probably has no chance of happening at this time. Also, would the surrounding regions have to have referendum to have a mayor like Bristol did? Would residents get any choice in the matter of being swallowed into a mega authority of which Bristol would be dominant…particularly with a mayoral system? It is so unequal. It would feel and work better if there were some built in constrains on the power of the mayor to override everyone no matter how wrong headed and have the power of recall if things go badly wrong. Otherwise any idiot with less than honest intentions could get in and do their worst. It has happened in other places. As I said, I believe it is a good idea to have a more expanded area in terms of having more control…but that doesn’t mean it would be any better if the mayoral role isn’t reformed.
‘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?’
With the mayor we have now this would be a horror story. Please, we need a high class professional politician who can inspire some real leadership and who has more substance than just a platitudinous ‘vision’.
HI Jean, thanks for your comments. I take your point but I think we have to divorce the person from the role – it’s the role of metro mayor that I believe would make a real difference to how things work in the Bristol area. That position would need to be directly elected by all those living in the area the role covers. Views and opinions on the person currently doing the Bristol Mayor role are a different matter. But I can see how that would impact on people’s judgement about an extended role!
It also looks to be Conservative party policy as well as Labours. So………..whilst we have the too main (i think they still are!) political parties in apparent agreement lets make this happen for Bristol. In this instance please over rule the local politicians!
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Maybe what needs to happen is to split up BCC into a couple of local authorities, then you can have a dozen or so authorities co-operating on a more level playing field. As it stands, there’s one “dominant” authority (Bristol), which isn’t so much the case for London for example (or is it?) What about Manchester, how does it work there?
Hi Tim, thanks for your comments, I think the case is similar in Manchester where the city authority is larger and more dominant than the others, but where the promise of money and power has seemingly overcome any concerns they might have had. But I do take your point about Bristol – although I question whether if we were all a little more grown up about the debate this notion of dominance would be less of an issue?
I attended the BBC Points West ‘Devolution Debate’ on Sunday morning as an invited guest. It was very interesting for what happened in the actual debate ( see on Wednesday evening on BBC 1 at 10:35…5 November) as well as in the meet and greet coffee room before had an afterwards when the programme was over. My impression was that there was very little appetite from Bristol’s adjoining areas to be part of a ‘Greater Bristol’ There seemed to be a belief that other councils were getting along just fine without any amalgamation. So mainly, they preferred the status quo. The political types seemed to get a lot of air time to the frustration of other people there who were residents, business people, and so on. And the ‘debate’ meandered all over the place. And it is a HUGE issue…very hard to ground in practicality. I guess this is the limitation of TV programmes. However, in the coffee hour before hand and in the chatting afterward, many people from outside ( and inside) Bristol were unhappy with the mayoral system and those from outside said they would fear being swamped if they had to be annexed into Bristol. Particularly without their consent. A couple people from N Somerset said that they were unimpressed with how the mayoral role was going in Bristol and were extremely worried about the diminishing of the roles of the elected councillors and the seeming loss of democracy in decision making. One guy from S. Glos said that they ‘look over the fence’ and see 20 mph zones and the controversy over parking..or try to get into work in Bristol and they say ‘Noooooo! We don’t want that happening to us.’ There also was concern about loss of identity…and the collapse of Avon years ago which still leaves scars. So how all this is going to overcome I just don’t know. There is much resistance to a basicly sensible idea. Several said they might think more about it if the mayoral system as it stands was ditched.
In Manchester there are two cities- that of Manchester and Salford. It is Salford that is the home of Manchester United, the BBC, Granada and the other media companies, the Lowry and the Imperial War Museum. Trafford has the Trafford Centre, Lancashire CCC and much of the wealthy suburbs. All the others are for areas which have significant urban centres such as Bolton, Oldham, Stockport and are already metropolitan district councils. So, I think there is a significant difference from the current position in Bristol where North Somerset and South Gloucestershire are considerably more rural than the city of Bristol and appear to be subservient to it. The population of Greater Manchester is over 2.5m whereas the equivalent for Bristol is about 650,000.
Latest news….Greater Manchester is getting a non elected mayor for two years until they elect a mayor in 2017, There will be no referendum despite the fact that Manchester voted firmly against having a mayor 2 and an bit years ago. Osborne has just dumped this on Manchester from a great height and the heads of the local councils are attracted by a possibility of more money in the future so think it is a good deal. But as of now, there is no extra money. This is beginning to sound wacky. Check out Channel 4 news this evening (3 November) toward the end of the programme. So what has happened to democracy?
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Great post, you might be interested in this one too, trying to make sure people are consulted if the boundaries are to be changed!
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