Devolution – are we missing the point?

This blogpost first appeared on Bristol 24/7 “Is Bristol falling behind with devolution?

So the West of England, we are lead to believe, has so far been missing from government conversations about the latest round of devolution, but does it matter? The business community would have us believe it is critical, whilst many of our politicians are resistant to change, but what does anyone else think? There lies the problem with the ‘debate’ to date. It has been held within the closed world of our politicians, business leaders and the LEP. It has also focused on structure rather than content. The outcry from our local political leaders has been against a centrally imposed model that involves a formally constructed combined authority, with a metro-mayor sitting at the head of the structure.

But there’s something missing from this debate. All this focus on structure is missing the point. The key question we should be considering as a city region is whether or not the offer from government is good enough. The starting point should be about what we need from a devolution deal. What powers and additional resources would help us to reduce poverty and social exclusion, what would make the most difference to our communities? What would help people and goods to move around the area better and would provide for quality, sustainable lifestyles, that both enhance conditions for growth, whilst maintaining the quality environment that makes our city-region so special? These things surely have to be the starting point for the debate?

We also need to broaden that debate out to be more inclusive. It needs to go beyond the ‘behind closed doors’ approach to one that involves the third sector, local people and communities. It strikes me as odd that such key decisions can be left to unelected, self-appointed business ‘leaders’ alongside local politicians, who have seldom, if ever, engaged with the electorate on the idea of devolution.

A recent debate I attended involving third sector organisations was both positive and refreshingly different, with energy and creativity all part of the mix. The focus was on devolution to and within cities. The rallying call was for civil society to take back control of the agenda and be ready to show the leadership required to ensure any deal is the right deal for our local communities. The positive debate was about having a shared vision, that we could all sign up to and the opportunity to do something different that will actually make a difference to the most vulnerable in our society. It wasn’t just about jobs and GDP, it was about people and their needs. It wasn’t just about creating wealth, but about helping people to move out of poverty and it wasn’t just about business needs, but also about the needs of local people and communities. That’s the type of debate we need to have about devolution and the kind of devolution deal I’d be proud to support. But is that what’s on offer?

Precisely what are the government offering local councils? The biggest deal signed off so far has been to the Greater Manchester city region. This included localized control over health spending, transport, skills, housing and planning. Cornwall’s deal, the first county to receive agreement, was less extensive but included greater control over local bus services, support to bring health and social care services together, skills and business support. The suite of services up for negotiation is quite extensive, but to claim them all requires a submission to a centrally imposed structure, otherwise the government has warned, the deals will be more limited.

So, what should be top of the list in Bristol and what would make the most difference here? Is it about supporting the most vulnerable into work and addressing key employment challenges in our local neighbourhoods? Should it be about energy and environmental issues, or supporting business and innovation, or maybe even combining the two? What about housing, how big an issue is this and should we be asking for devolved funding or improved borrowing ability to enable us to build more local, affordable homes? Would greater ability to integrate local health and social care services provide for a substantially improved service? Or is it all about transport, the focus of so much debate around here? The list goes on, but are our business leaders and politicians discussing all the options or are they solely focused on resisting the idea of a formal combined authority structure and directly elected metro-mayor that they have forgotten what the debate should be about?

Other city regions and councils across the country are putting together their bids and many are already in negotiation with government. There’s potentially a lot on offer that would make a difference locally. But the bid has to be the right bid with the right intentions otherwise it’ll have little impact where it matters.

Devolution to and within cities

The devolution agenda in England appears to have an element of cross party consensus, at least on the surface in relation to the need for something to change, even if the detail is somewhat lacking. The discussion to date appears to be dominated by central government, local authorities and business, with the emphasis very much on what the government wants, with everyone else running around to catch up. It’s also a debate that seems to be focused on structures rather than resources and responsibilities, as is often the way with public sector change. The concept is debated without the detail, when we all know “the devil is in the detail”. The whole debate is also being conducted against a backdrop of austerity measures, where local government funding is being severely cut and public services decimated. So one has to ask the question whether or not devolution is just an opportunity for government to shift the burden of cuts and service delivery to local councils, or whether it is really responding to an agenda about democratic accountability and improving local services. I guess it’s a bit of both?

With the establishment of Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEP) and talk of Combined Authorities the discussion, at least in Bristol, seems to centre around business and growth, with the business community working alongside the public sector to create their vision for the growth and prosperity of an area. It’s been about marketing the city region, saying how fantastic we are, quoting GDP and GVA figures to show what a strong economy we have and talking about all the brilliant local businesses we have in all the right sectors. All very important of course, but sadly lacking in terms of any reference to communities, poverty and inequalities. In our rush to say what a brilliant place the Bristol city region is, we forget about what’s important and all too often lack any connection with local people and local needs.

George Ferguson, in a presentation to the community and voluntary sector in Bristol described devolution as “local freedom” and made reference to the Charter for Local Freedom. The Charter, whilst based on the principles of prosperity, equality and democracy, comes across primarily as an economic vision, with the focus on strengthening local economies and getting people into jobs in order to save public money. However, it also has a strong vein running through it about local democracy, trusting people to make the right choices, empowering communities and neighbourhoods, with the decisions taken at the most appropriate level. This was a key theme to emerge from the debate at the VOSCUR meeting in Bristol where there was a real sense that devolution needed to be about devolution within cities not just to cities. One of the main voices missing in the debate is that of the community and voluntary sector and there was a call from members of the panel for a strong shared vision to emerge from the sector and the need for community leadership, to challenge the business focused vision that is firmly in place through the LEPs.

Throughout the debate it was clear that there was a real emphasis on the need for civil society to take back control of this agenda and stop it being about reaction to a centrally imposed system or approach. If the debate about devolution is really about local freedom, then the power to decide locally what are the best structures and the required resources is absolutely fundamental to its success. A one size fits all approach, imposed by the centre on local councils desperate to win out in competitive funding regimes, is not the answer. An approach founded on proper engagement of local people, beyond business and politicians, based on local need and local circumstances would undoubtedly work better, but is in itself a real challenge for central government. For government to not only devolve decision making and resources, but also decisions about structures, it has to have a sense that the local area can be trusted and that it will come up with something that works. Sadly, this doesn’t often seem to be the foundation of the relationship between our different levels of government at the moment, often for justifiable reasons.

The devolution agenda is an opportunity to do something different. It’s an opportunity for public, private and voluntary and community sectors to put together a local proposal that works for the city region. There is no central blueprint, what works in Manchester won’t necessarily work in Bristol. The trick is for Bristol, and other areas, to put forward those proposals, collaboratively, through proper engagement and discussion, and ensure that what Bristol gets is best for Bristol.  The key for the voluntary and community sector is to ensure they are a central part of the discussion, that they are at the table when the decisions are taken and that they have a shared vision and strong leadership to ensure their voice is heard. At the moment, it feels like we are a long way from this shared vision and time is running out.

How to solve the housing crisis?

2015-02-27 08.57.21This morning I went along to my first General Election 2015 debate. It was organised by a group of professional bodies representing planners, architects and surveyors, and focused on the built environment’ that is housing, planning and infrastructure. It had a good line up of candidates, from the 5 main parties, and was chaired by David Garmston from BBC Points West. Whilst I didn’t expect to hear lots of new ideas and policies, I was hoping for some key pointers on how we can improve our infrastructure, build more houses and make planning a more positive and engaged process that delivers quality places. To be fair, there were some interesting points, but mostly it was just the same old stuff, the same ideas and policies that are clearly not working very well at the moment and haven’t for some time. I was left feeling slightly less than inspired and struggling to really define the difference between the main parties (I’ll exclude the Greens and UKIP from that comment, as they did stand out as different, but not necessarily in a good way).

In relation to housing, one of the things that struck me from the debate was that, if you put to one side the argument about how many houses, the solutions to the housing crisis appear to be quite simple and the candidates appeared largely to be in agreement on both the problem and the solutions. The main thrust of the discussion was around the following issues:

  • It’s a problem of supply, we need to build more houses to keep up with demand
  • Housing affordability is a real issue in Bristol and the West of England
  • Need to focus on a mixture of tenures and types to meet the changing need
  • Need to reduce resistance to new housing development by working with and engaging communities in the debate
  • Need for a longer term view and vision for housing
  • Incentivise house building, ‘use it or lose’ in relation to land banking
  • Housebuilders not keeping up with the demand and Housing Associations not filling the gap left by local councils

Very little of this would come as a surprise to anyone involved in discussions about housing policy and development. So will anything really change after the election? Whoever is elected, there seems to be little by way of new policy ideas to help solve the housing crisis, just a restatement and reprioritising of existing policy. Where are the radical new policies that might actually make a difference? What about stopping the right to buy on all new council housing and allowing councils to borrow more so they can fund new social housing, that’s then available for all those that need it, without the fear of losing it in a few years to private landlords? What about prioritising public land and buildings for new housing developments, so the control of phasing, quality, design and planning rests with the public sector and communities rather than developers and house builders? What about changing the way we build houses, modernising our building methods to build more off site, using different skills and processes? Is it really that hard to extend our thinking beyond the very narrow confines of recent and current policy? Surely if it’s not working, it’s time for a rethink?

There was also a debate about the skills shortage and how this impacts upon the housing crisis and our ability to build new homes. The most entertaining element of the debate was definitely listening to the UKIP candidate tie himself in knots about the positives of immigration when we need people compared to the negatives they spin out most the time! Other than that there were some serious points about how the focus on encouraging people into a university education has actually been damaging to our skills base. The point being that we are losing the ‘vocational’ skills because these are somehow seen as inferior, when we should be promoting a parity of esteem for all vocational and university courses and skills.

The discussion about governance and devolution was quite encouraging and significantly different to what you would hear if you had five local councillors on the panel rather than five parliamentary candidates. Indeed, if there were any local councillors in the room I imagine they would have been somewhat annoyed and maybe a little embarrassed by the debate. The main point seemed to be that the history of the apparent inability of the four councils that make up the West of England to actually work together in any real and meaningful way has tarnished our ability to make the most of the opportunities available to us. Despite the best endeavours of the Local Enterprise Partnership, the Mayor and other council leaders, there is still clearly a very strong perception in Government that the Bristol city region has not yet got its act together. This means the potential benefits of more power, accountability, responsibility and resource are less likely to come our way and more likely to go to places like Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham and others who seem to be able to put political differences to one side for the benefit of their city regions. We can’t even agree that we need a formal integrated transport authority for the Bristol city region, which to most people would seem obvious, but not to our local political leaders. Let alone agree that any other form of formal structures and agreements to cover strategic planning, housing and growth are needed or would provide any benefit to the area. There seemed to be general agreement from the panel that this leaves the city region in a position where it could well be left behind by other city regions, as they forge ahead with formal partnerships and arrangements. That’s not to say that we should just fall in line with central government dictat, but that we should be able to overcome local political differences, to do what is best for the city region – at the moment that doesn’t appear to be happening.

It was an interesting debate around some really important issues, but I can’t help but feel the confines of the debate are too narrow and we’re missing out on some of the solutions and ideas that might come from wider debate and more innovative, creative thinking.

The Bristol Mayor – You know it makes sense!

IMG_2115As the first Directly Elected Mayor (DEM) for Bristol enters his third year of office, what can we say about this new role and the changes we have seen during the first two years? Has it worked, has the role made a difference? To some degree it depends on your starting point. If you were one of those who supported the idea of a DEM and voted Yes in the referendum, and/or voted for George Ferguson in the election then you are likely to be more positively disposed to both the role and the incumbent (or at least I would imagine that to be the case). Those who voted No in the referendum and were opposed to the role of a DEM for Bristol and/or subsequently voted for another candidate in the election (or didn’t vote at all) may well be likely to look for more negatives and be more critical of the system as it is working now. It is difficult to be objective when you start from a particular position.

Equally it is highly likely that you were one of those who didn’t vote in the referendum and didn’t vote in the subsequent election, one of the majority in fact? So whilst the political elite and the powers in central government believe DEM are an important issue in terms of how our cities are run and managed, local people seemed to be less than convinced, either by the proposals at the time or more likely were just disillusioned with the political classes generally – “they’re all as bad as one another” or “they’re all the same” being an often quoted reason for not voting.

It seems to me that the idea of a DEM before the experience of one was not enough to convince people it might be a solution to the negativity and disinterest surrounding local democracy – it didn’t catch on with most of the public, wasn’t interesting enough or different enough? It will be interesting therefore to see in 2016, when the Bristol Mayor is up for election alongside all 70 local councillors, whether or not people have been more or less convinced by the experience of having a city mayor, how the role works and what difference it makes.

One thing is clear, George Ferguson is far more visible as a council leader and champion for the city than any other recent leader of the council. This view is supported by the work of Bristol University and UWE in their research on civic leadership, which clearly found that  the mayoral model in Bristol provides high profile, visible leadership. But is visibility enough, what more did we expect from this new role? Issues and benefits of the role talked about at the time of the referendum included, clarity of decision making, more power and resources to come from government, ability to take the difficult decisions and ability to be more strategic and develop longer term plans because the role was not tied to the annual election cycle. So have we seen a difference in relation to any of these issues? Has George Ferguson delivered on any of these aspects any better than the council and party leaders have in the past? At the time the arguments for a DEM were quite compelling  – we’d get more power, more money, more responsibility locally as a result of going along with this government promoted strategy. The practice however is less compelling, have we really done better than any of the other core cities when it comes to devolved power and additional resources – from where I’m sitting it doesn’t look like it. In fact other cities are now beginning to steal the march on us – Manchester with it’s combined authority and the promise of a metro mayor, Leeds and Birmingham likely to follow soon, all look set to achieve more. So what difference has having an elected mayor really made to Bristol, beyond increasing the visibility of the role and the city, which are major achievements in themselves, but is that all we can expect?

Which brings me to the Mayor’s Annual Lecture and State of the City address. Around 900 people gathered in the Great Hall at the Wills Memorial Building last night (10th Nov) to listen to George’s second annual lecture, and I was amongst them. Overall what we got was a speech that delivered many of the right statements, rhetoric and promises but was a bit light on detail and actions – probably to be expected of these kind of events? George opened by talking about his commitment to turning promises, hopes and aspirations into actions, all very commendable, but has he delivered on that? He talked about raising the profile of the city, attending lots of meetings and events all over the world and about the leadership role which he admitted he didn’t always get right. He also talked about Bristol as a prosperous city but also a city of contrasts, where not everyone feels the benefit of progress. There was a clear recognition that whilst we can hail and promote the success of Bristol we also need to recognise that in a prosperous city those with less who do not benefit from this prosperity are relatively poorer. Again, the rhetoric was certainly there, but what of actions? I was less convinced when it came to understanding quite what we were going to do differently to address problems of inequality, the detail was certainly lacking, although reference was made to the Mayoral Commissions, including the Fairness Commission and the need to take on board their recommendations.

George talked about housing, transport, jobs, economy and infrastructure, including some big projects like Filwood Green Business Park, Temple Quarter Enterprise Zone and of course, the Arena. Decisions about transport have probably created the greatest controversy in Bristol so far during George’s term of office, with residents parking and 20mph zones generating the most debate and criticism. I’m with George on the notion that he is there to take the difficult decisions and to make things happen that other leaders have been to hesitant to implement, and I’m with him on the need to do something about traffic and congestion. But I do think he has shied away from some of the tougher options, like Workplace Parking Levy and Congestion Charging, both of which could bring in the funding needed to pay for a real tram scheme in Bristol and which could make the biggest difference to congestion and air pollution in the city. These are difficult issues and challenging for business but need to be put back onto the agenda as part of a longer term strategy that puts people first in terms of accessibility rather than cars! Sadly on many of the big issues raised there were few solutions and little detail offered. I was left feeling like things hadn’t really moved on much from last year’s speech, but maybe I was expecting too much.

One area where we did see some real commitment was on the issue of devolution and the need for a combined authority for the Greater Bristol area. George threw down a challenge to his fellow leaders across the West of England, making it clear that there is a window of opportunity there for the taking, if we don’t gear up for this change it will be a major opportunity missed for the area and we’ll lose out compared to other cities. The changes proposed in Manchester are likely to be followed up in the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement, with new powers on transport, skills, homes and strategic planning all available if only we can get our act together round here. This means going beyond the trite statements about ‘working together’ that we all too often hear from council leaders in the surrounding authorities and instead those leaders need to accept that being part of a Greater Bristol city region is the way forward, with clear commitment across party lines and artificial boundaries. As George said – “You know it makes sense” – a good note to end his speech on!

Overall I was left feeling rather conflicted, positive about some elements of the debate and uncertain and unsure about other elements. The mayoral role has helped but not enough, yet? For me we are still stuck on short term plans and spend too little time on longer term, strategic planning. We try to affect the here and now, but ignore the bigger issues. We also pander to government initiatives rather than trying to impose our own agenda. I would like to see the promise of this new role pushing our city agenda with government rather than merely responding to government agendas and funding rounds – with a clear, long term plan, addressing the key issues locally we would have a platform to approach government from and a local agenda to pursue. The next year or so will be critical if we are to see the real change having an elected mayor could bring – over to you George to lead the way!

A Mayor for Greater Bristol?

DSCN0141So, 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?