The living standards challenge facing the Metro Mayor

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There was an event in Bristol recently to discuss a newly published report by the Resolution Foundation – “A Western Union: living standards and devolution in the West of England“. This report discusses the living standards challenge facing the soon to be elected West of England Metro Mayor. It’s a report that sets out the statistics demonstrating the gaps between pay and productivity, wages and house prices/rents and geographically between areas of South Bristol and Bath compared to the rest of the city region. It also highlights how low earners and single parents have faired the worst since the recession. It sets out very clearly what we already know, and have know for some time, that the West of England is a relatively prosperous city region. We faired pretty well during the recession and our recovery since has been rapid, but we face particular challenges some borne out of that success and some more entrenched in the very nature of our city region.

Ask anyone what the issues are for the West of England and housing will likely be pretty close to the top of their list (alongside transport). The challenge here is huge compared to other city regions, house prices are at least 10 times higher than the typical salary, there’s a lower proportion of people living in social rented accommodation and an increasing number reliant on private renting. Rents in the West of England are now 38% higher than in other city regions, making up 41% of the typical gross monthly salary, that’s an insane amount.

The other major challenge identified in the West of England is the distribution of economic success. On average household incomes are higher in our city region than they are in most others, as are employment rates, but these average figures hide a number of significant divides and inequalities demonstrating that not everyone has shared in this relative success. The rise in productivity is not being translated into increasing pay and it is the lower paid workers who have faired less well in recent years. The post-crisis pay squeeze has been felt most by low to middle earners in the West of England.

Anyway, back to the event itself. There was a panel including Conor D’Arcy from the Resolution Foundation; the Mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees; Jaya Chakrabarti of Nameless Media; and John Savage from the Chamber of Commerce. After an initial introduction to the report from Conor, the other participants then set out what they thought were the key challenges facing the new metro mayor and what the role entailed. There was relative agreement about the role itself, with some concerns expressed about the central imposition of this new metro mayor on our area, but also general acceptance that is was going to happen therefore we had to make the most of it.

The participants each covered a range of issues with Marvin setting out how he thought we should be talking about behaviours rather than structures and that the role was about collaboration, emotional intelligence and complementary sovereignty. The difficult task would be to find shared priorities given the diversity of the patch. Jaya talked about the need for civic leadership and how this could work at a city region level before going on to raise concerns about in-work poverty and how this is a key issue across our area. John reminded us about the inequalities across our divided city region and how these included the same areas as those of 10/20 years ago, leaving the same people behind decade after decade. He outlined how he thought the role of the metro mayor was an enabling one, which would undoubtedly be hindered by the leadership of some of the constituent authorities.

The discussion that followed was varied and initially picked up on the housing crisis and the problems young people were experiencing across the city region, with the need to build more affordable homes emphasised as well as the need to control rents and improve the security of private sector tenancies. There was also a debate about sovereignty, centralisation and power distribution, with most agreeing that the relationship between government and local councils was more like a parent/child relationship, with the government in control. The need for a structural and cultural rebalancing of sovereignty was stressed, with the point made that devolution seemed to be about devolution of austerity rather than power and that for city regions to succeed in addressing inequalities there needed to be more resource as well as responsibility passed down by government. It was suggested that cities also needed to be proactive, setting out how they want to solve their own problems, then they are likely to receive more support from government to enable those solutions.

One of the concerns raised was regarding the different levels of governance and areas covered and how these would work together. Clearly with North Somerset not included as part of the West of England Combined Authority or as part of the metro mayor area, this presents some challenges, given they are part of the Local Enterprise Partnership area. Other anomalies were also identified, with Bath and North East Somerset included in a different Health Partnership Area and a different Housing Market Area. Working across the area is complex and developing shared agendas a real challenge.

The Resolution Foundation report makes three main recommendations on priority areas for the new metro mayor:

  • Become Britain’s first full employment city – further progress could be made on boosting employment rates in deprived parts of the West of England and for single parents to edge close to that goal of full employment.
  • Boost pay for low and middle earners – the Metro Mayor should act as convenor to encourage productivity-raising responses to the National Living Wage as well as promoting uptake of the voluntary Living Wage.
  • Build more affordable homes – affordable housing should be front and centre of the combined efforts from local leaders, with a key role for the Metro Mayor to drive through the process of implementing the Joint Spatial Plan to deliver new homes.

These priorities, along with developing shared agendas and collaborating across the city region and with Whitehall and Westminster are what this new role is all about. Despite the perceived lack of powers and resource there is a glimmer of an opportunity that needs to be taken. The candidates are currently being announced and the election for the first Metro Mayor takes place in May this year. Given there are no other local elections this year it will certainly be interesting to see if this election will manage to grab the attention of the voters and what the turnout will be.

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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.

Top of the blogs 2014 – politics, poverty and housing

Well it’s come to that time of year when everyone does their ‘best of 2014’ so I thought I’d join the crowd and highlight the most popular blogs on my site this year. It’s always difficult to know which blogs will take hold and generate interest and comment, and I am always surprised by those that do and equally by some that don’t. This surprise is compounded by my constant amazement that anyone is actually interested enough to read them to begin with!!

My blogs during 2014 have been mostly about housing, planning and inequality, often based on what’s happening in Bristol, as well as elsewhere, but always just about issues that are important to me! Whilst my posting of new blogs tends to be erratic and irregular, readership of my blog has steadily increased over the year, with more views and comments as time goes on.

So to the blogs that were most popular on my site:

  • Time for grown up politics? this one came top of the popularity stakes by a long way and even though it was written back in July it still receives a steady trickle of views now. It’s about the negativity of politics and our distrust of politicians;
  • Economic growth & poverty – LEPs take note! which talks about why just creating jobs isn’t enough to tackling the rising poverty experienced in our cite. This was one of several blogs about this topic and why LEPs need to do more to address inequality of opportunity;
  • Bristol – a divided city? this one was about one of the biggest issues Bristol as a prosperous city faces, about the divide between rich and poor and the lack of a strategy to address the issues that need addressing. It was sparked by my involvement in a BBC programme about the same issue.
  • A Mayor for greater Bristol? a controversial blog about bringing the 4 councils around Bristol together more formally to take strategic decisions, working in partnership and collaboratively under one leader. To say opinion is divided on this one would be an understatement;
  • Pick ‘n’ mix housing policy? a popular post that gets regular views, which challenges the short term approach to housing policy adopted by many of our politicians and calls for a coherent, long term plan for housing, locally and nationally.

Well that’s it, a mix of posts about politics, poverty, housing and democracy, that seem to have captured some interest. I thank everyone who reads my blogs for their interest, forbearance and support.

I wish everyone a very Happy Christmas and New Year, and look forward to 2015, a year when politics, housing and poverty will undoubtedly be central issues once more.

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?