Devolution, 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.