A Western Powerhouse?

Britain’s Western Powerhouse was launched recently, with a report authored by Metro Dynamics. It is an interesting initiative from the cities of Bristol, Cardiff and Newport. With a focus on connectivity and economic collaboration, it’s an attempt to show how the West can compete with the emerging Northern Powerhouse and Midlands Engine, albeit on a somewhat smaller scale.

With a proliferation of names, including Western Powerhouse, Severn Powerhouse, and Great Western Cities (GWC) Powerhouse, the initiative is about illustrating the strength of this area as a net contributor to UK plc and just how much more could be achieved through increased collaboration. What it definitely is not about is any suggestion of formal structures or systems of governance. It is purely about collaboration and connectivity. You might wonder why this point is so important that it has to be stressed? Basically it is about distancing itself from the city region devolution agenda being pursued by the government, where metro mayors and combined authorities are necessary to elicit the best deals.

The Bristol city region has been negotiating on just such a deal since September last year, seemingly with a relative stalemate because locally the formal structures proposed by the government have received little support and neither side appears to be willing to compromise. It will be interesting to see if Bristol does indeed secure as good a deal as the other core cities that have accepted the government’s model.

Either way, this new collaboration with Cardiff and Newport provides a different opportunity. It seems obvious in some respects as we share the potential of the Severn Estuary and Cardiff is certainly the closest big city to Bristol, with little other competition close-by.

The report recommendations are light on detail and action, but that is perhaps to be expected from such an informal, non-structured relationship. They focus on the following aspects:

  • Establishing city devolution deals for Cardiff and Bristol city regions to provide the powers needed to support the GWC Powerhouse
  • Develop a campaign on better connectivity across the area (GWC Connect)
  • Develop a marketing and investment strategy
  • Undertake an innovation audit to identify key areas of economic and research strength to feed into a region wide innovation strategy
  • Establish data observatory

Now reading that list you might well think ‘what on earth does that mean’? I know I did. After an initial buzz of excitement that perhaps there was something in this idea and it might actually do something that could make a difference, the recommendations left me feeling totally deflated. Where was the action that would mean anything to anyone living in this area? Where was the ambition? Was this just going to be yet another document or strategy that would sit on a shelf somewhere and achieve nothing?

So I delved further into the report and came away feeling slightly more positive. The key is to think about what Cardiff and Bristol have in common, what connects the cities and what potential there is for creative and innovative ideas to develop. Then if you ignore the recommendations and develop your own, you can begin to see the potential that this form of collaboration might just deliver on.

Much of the talk in the document is about the Cardiff and Bristol metro areas and the strength of ‘constructed agglomeration’, where collaboration between multiple core cities/areas is able to achieve greater economic benefit than reliance on a single core. The benefits of agglomeration are defined as sharing, matching and learning. Something that already happens but could undoubtedly be improved through facilitation.

There’s a lot in the document about economic growth and industry density maps, travel to work flows and self-containment, inward investment and place marketing but what really stands out is the potential of collaboration around the Severn Estuary.

For me the couple of pages in the document on renewable energy and the estuary were the ones that made the most sense, where the opportunity to do something big and ambitious really shone through. The document does identify this as one of three areas that are central to GWC future growth, where there is potential for innovation and increasing expertise. It talks about tidal, wave and wind energy and emerging ideas around tidal stream and tidal range technology. The linkages to increased workforce capacity, improved supply chains and the use of existing research capacity provide perhaps the greatest opportunity for collaboration and innovation, where we might be able to see a real difference. What is lacking is any idea of how this might happen.

It is a shame the report recommendations do not seem to pick up on the potential of the resource we have in the Estuary and provide proposals for real action that would make a difference. It seems we just have to hope that others will pick up on this and be more creative about what is possible.

This blogpost first appeared on the Bristol 247 website.

A confusion of governance?

DSCN0141Devolution, cross border partnerships, growth deals and city region plans seem to be in the news just lately, but what does it all mean for our cities? Will these new deals and partnerships really make much difference or are they just an added confusion to the story of local governance? In Bristol the story is a particularly complicated one. With tight administrative city boundaries, Bristol is reliant on partnership working to get things done around transport, infrastructure, housing and growth. It can’t do it alone.

Some years ago, once the county of Avon was abolished, public/private partnerships were set up to work across the old county area on strategic issues. One of those, the West of England Strategic Partnership, has now been reformed into the West of England Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), to meet government requirements for partnerships focused on growth and jobs. This brings together the 4 councils that cover the old Avon area – Bristol, South Gloucestershire, North Somerset and Bath & North East Somerset. Seems there was some sense to the old County area after all? Things seem to muddle along in this partnership, despite the antipathy between the councils and the different political line ups across them. But does this level of governance really work when it is merely based on voluntary partnership? Does it work when the city of Bristol is the driving force? And can it continue to work with all the different approaches to local governance stretching across the 4 councils?

To illustrate this, just consider the challenges now Bristol has a new system with an elected mayor, but the other 3 councils don’t. South Gloucestershire has retreated to the old committee system of governance, whilst the other 2 councils retain the leader with cabinet and scrutiny split. That’s 3 different styles of local governance operating across the 4 councils. Now consider the political make up of those councils. Bristol, having lurched around from Labour to Liberal Democrat and back again, now has an Independent Mayor running the council, with Labour the largest group on the council but no longer in control. North Somerset has a deeply rooted Conservative Council, with a significant majority for a while now. Bath & NE Somerset council moves between Liberal Democrat and Conservative, with slim majorities and is currently Lib Dem controlled. South Gloucestershire is currently under Conservative control. So the political differences are also there for all to see.

Added to this complexity are the roles and responsibilities of the sub regional partnership under the guise of the LEP. It covers business growth, skills, jobs, and transport, and has a role in strategic planning for housing and employment space. As the core city, Bristol is at the centre of the discussions about growth deals, about new devolved responsibilities and a member of the core cities group that lobbies government on these issues. But on it’s own it can’t actually deliver much of the growth because it is hampered by ridiculous administrative boundaries that leave ⅓ of the urban area within the control of a different council (S.Glos). So around here we rely on informal partnership working to get things done, through an LEP that tries to be inclusive, but largely fails, and which seeks compromise in order to get agreement, reverting to the lowest common denominator all too often!

Now it seems we are adding a further complexity to this already complicated scenario. Bristol has teamed up with Cardiff and Newport in a cross border collaboration, in a new partnership called the “Great Western Cities” region. Its focus will be on improving transport infrastructure and connectivity, harnessing the energy generating potential of the Severn Estuary and marketing the area as a great place to do business. I can see the benefit of this kind of linkage but wonder quite how it sits with the West of England LEP and their plans for growth and development. Why is Bristol going it alone to seek new partnerships when we have a long standing one in place already – is it because it’s not working perhaps? Is it because Bristol has more in common with the likes of Cardiff than it could ever have with the other councils around here? Whatever the reason, it is an added level of complexity to an already complex system of local governance.

Darren Jones, Labour Parliamentary Candidate for Bristol North West, has outlined his views on this new partnership, suggesting it is either to do with politics and elections than anything else, or Bristol giving up on making things work in the traditional city region in favour of a new option. I have some sympathy for his analysis and discussion. Whilst I have never been entirely convinced by the LEP and its ability to deliver, we can’t afford to stop trying to get it right. Whether that is a new partnership with other areas, or more formal working structures across the West of England, something needs to change but quite what is clearly a point for debate. Indeed, one of the things that seems to be missing in all this is the public debate, where has there been a real opportunity to discuss properly what is needed and what would work best for the communities of Bristol and surrounding authorities? Is it just a decision for a handful of politicians, or does it need wider discussion?

It will be interesting to see how these informal partnerships progress and what benefits they bring to our city region. It’ll also be interesting to see if we really can compete with the more formal, structured systems being put in place elsewhere. With Manchester leading the way with its new devolution deal and metro mayor, and others such as Leeds, Sheffield, Birmingham  and Newcastle following rapidly, will the Bristol city region be left behind? The story will no doubt unfold over the coming months.