Grab the power, use it, then ask for more!

BWST02 AW AerialSo it seems Bristol, South Gloucestershire, and Bath and North East Somerset Councils have signed up to the devolution deal on offer and with it have agreed to set up a combined authority with a directly elected metro mayor. Whilst this was indeed the most likely outcome, there was always the possibility that it could be derailed at this point.

Earlier this month North Somerset Council opted not to be part of this, they said an emphatic no to the deal. So the full area covered by the Local Enterprise Partnership will not be the same as the deal area. This in itself could cause future complications when discussing strategic planning and transport. But, let’s not dwell on that, the important thing to note here is that politicians in North Somerset voted to exclude their population from receiving this extra funding and additional local power. They’ll just have to sit back and watch the other areas benefit from it instead!

It would be fair to say that whilst the deal was agreed in the other three areas it was with significant reservations and concerns. Those concerns focused primarily on the notion of the imposed structure, which was made clear from the start – without a metro mayor there would be no deal. The idea of creating another powerful position, which sits above the existing Bristol Mayor and other Council Leaders, is clearly something that will take some getting used to. Equally, the idea that there is an imposed structure, devised by government, is never going to be particularly popular with local politicians, decision makers and the public. But thankfully, other than in North Somerset, this was not enough on its own to derail the deal.

Concerns have also been raised about the lack of transparency and accountability of the whole process. Most of the initial discussions were held in secret, behind closed doors, involving local leaders with Whitehall officials. The content of those discussions did not become clear until the deal was published. This in itself is challenging, for those local politicians not included, for the public and those with an interest in local decision making it meant buy-in to, and understanding of, the deal was limited. It means we have little idea of what was not included and why, we only know what is there now. Did our political leaders try for more powers over housing, health, and education, or does the deal reflect the limits of their ambition? Did they challenge and discuss how economic growth could be made to work for those traditionally excluded from the benefits of ‘trickle-down’ and try to address the issues in a different way? I guess we’re unlikely to know, all we can do is work on what was agreed and draw our own conclusions on what we think is missing.

I posed a number of questions about the devolution deal earlier this year, which remain pertinent now: would it matter if we didn’t agree it; is it worth it; is it the right structure; and what’s missing?

In terms of the first two questions then I think the answer is becoming even more clear now, with the events of last week (Brexit), Bristol and the city region need to take whatever is on offer to enable more independent and local control over what happens in our city region. As a diverse, forward thinking city region, we need to make local decisions about key issues that impact upon our area. I say, grab the power and use it, and then go back and ask for more, and more again. In the Bristol city region we have the capacity, ambition and foresight to make this work, to be at the forefront of creative and innovative policy and action, and now more than ever this is what we need to do. I applaud our politicians for making this difficult decision, failing to do so could have left Bristol behind other city regions where deals have already been struck.

Don’t get me wrong; I personally have concerns over how this whole thing will work, whether the current deal is enough, whether the structure will work, and whether there is enough flexibility to really address the issues that matter in our area. But, as others have said, it is the only offer on the table, without it we stay where we are, we lose out on money and power whilst other areas benefit.

As for the metro mayor and combined authority, then I can see both pros and cons. The combined authority that has power to take decisions over key strategic matters without constant reference back to each local council area is in my view something we have needed in this area for some time. The metro mayor is a different matter. There has been no consultation over this, no opportunity to see if there is a public appetite for such a role and no real open debate about the benefits it could bring. Indeed, the government itself has consistently failed to make the case for metro mayors, other than to make it clear you have to have one to get the deal.

But nonetheless, that’s what we are stuck with, so lets embrace the idea and make the most of it; make it work for our city region. What it does potentially provide is a role that has the interests of the whole city region at its heart. The metro mayor will promote and speak for the city region in its entirety, rather than represent a small part of it. We haven’t seen that kind of strategic leadership for some time and it has been sorely missed.

The final question I asked was about what’s missing from the deal. In relation to this then I think the door is still open. Where deals have been agreed in other areas it seems to have provided the opportunity to continue negotiations, to add powers and keep the discussion going. So there’s an opportunity for the Bristol Mayor and the Leaders of the other two councils to go to government and ask for more.

How about asking government if we could suspend the right to buy on council properties across the patch or in certain areas, or even just for new build council housing? Why not, parts of Wales have? How about taxing developers for stalled sites, charging them a tax on unbuilt properties, could this have been included, can we ask for it now? Now’s the chance to consult with more colleagues across the city region, talk to other areas and push hard on what is possible.

Perhaps rather than reluctant agreement we should be embracing the deal and everything it brings with it? The important thing now is to get as much as possible out of it and make it work for us.

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