The announcement in the Budget that the West of England had signed a devolution deal with Government came as a bit of a surprise to many. This was partially because the deals have been shrouded in so much secrecy that even many of our local politicians didn’t know what was happening and what would be included, let alone the local residents. It was also a bit of a surprise when you consider the general level of local opposition to the notion of a combined authority and a metro-mayor. This opposition has been pretty much unanimous amongst local politicians, with few supporting the idea of a city-region mayor, and most suggesting that current, informal arrangements are sufficient and that there is no need for any form of formal structure. So definitely surprising to see that all four leaders have signed up to a deal that includes arrangements for a metro-mayor and combined authority structure.
There are a number of questions that initially spring to my mind when considering this whole devolution agenda. Firstly, if we weren’t part of it would it matter? Secondly, is what’s included worth it? Thirdly, is this the right structure for our area? Lastly, what’s missing? I’ll take these questions in turn and share my thoughts.
So to begin, would it matter if we hadn’t agreed a deal and if when this deal is taken to each of the four local councils for agreement it all falls apart, do we care? Which, let’s face it, given the initial response from some quarters is quite likely. North Somerset have already made it pretty clear they don’t agree and don’t feel their area benefits enough from the deal and the MP for North East Somerset has clearly stated that he is firmly opposed to any such deal with the structure imposed by his own government. One of the important issues to consider here is where else has signed devolution deals. The government’s aim was to have all the Core Cities signed up to deals with a metro-mayor and combined authority in place. So far, Sheffield, Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, Newcastle and Cardiff have signed deals whilst negotiations are continuing in Nottingham and Leeds. So if Bristol were not to be part of this process we might well lose out in comparison to other key cities in England and Wales. By lose out I mean both competitively and in terms of perception. So it just might matter, we would lose the extra funding on offer and suffer a further loss of credibility with government, something this area has suffered from for many years.
My second question was is the deal worth it? Is there enough in this deal to make it worthwhile accepting an imposed structure that has little support locally (although to be fair there has been little real public debate about this)? The content of the deal covers transport, housing, planning, skills and business support, key issues that arguably need a more strategic approach, across local council boundaries. It brings in extra resources, around £30m a year for thirty years and extra powers to decide things locally around transport, adult education and employment support. It also opens up a more positive dialogue with government about future powers and resources, that might not be on offer otherwise. So in terms of the first two questions then I can understand why the deal has been done, we don’t want to lose out and this is the only option on offer, so we probably do need to be part of it.
The question of structure seems to be the one everyone is focused on. Is a metro-mayor right for the West of England when we already have a Bristol mayor? Is a combined authority needed? To some degree the question is pointless as Osborne made it very clear from the start of this process that devolution deals for cities would have to agree to this structure, it’s an issue that didn’t appear to be up for debate. So if we want the deal we have to accept the structure. Whatever the rights and wrongs and irony of a devolution process that imposes a structure, that is all that’s on offer. Other cities have been equally reticent about agreeing to the idea of a metro-mayor and combined authority, but in order to progress their devolution deal they have accepted it (reluctantly) as part of the process. It seems we will have to do the same.
Personally I think there are some merits in the approach and would certainly advocate the need for a combined authority. Whilst we have had an informal structure for some time, it is less than effective. At the moment, decisions made by the LEP or Strategic Leaders Board have to go back to each of the four local authorities for formal approval, a process that can take months. So a formal structure that cuts out that process has to be good for speeding up decision making. It will also have a focus on strategic issues, something much needed round here.
The issue of a metro-mayor is perhaps more controversial. How would this strategic mayor work with the Bristol mayor? Would there be overlaps of role and confusion as a result? I’m not against the idea personally as I believe that two strong leadership roles promoting our city and city region has to be a good thing and can only benefit the area in the long run, but I can understand why some might be opposed to it.
My final question was about what’s missing from the deal, what more could we have included if only the process had been a little more collaborative, open and transparent? The point about transparency came through very strongly in relation to some research I was involved in as part of a Political Studies Association Research Commission which looked at informal governance as part of the devolution process. The research found that many areas had very real concerns about the lack of openness during the process and the lack of engagement of other politicians and stakeholders was a concern that those involved thought might lead to problems later on. The issue here is about ownership, if you don’t involve people in the process they don’t have any ownership of the output. So one would expect some local politicians, as elected representatives, to have concerns about the content of deals and the process by which they have been agreed. For me it also seems a shame that the process excluded people who might just have provided some interesting and useful ideas to the content of bids.
Looking at the issues that really matter in the West of England and those that need a level of strategic thinking to provide workable solutions, then the bid covers the most obvious broad areas, although health is currently missing from the equation. However, when looking at what is contained one could ask a few questions about how limited the content is. Why haven’t we been more bold in our asks?
If I just look at the whole issue of housing, a major problem in the West of England that we have failed to address strategically for many years. The proposals in the deal are based around a fund to support infrastructure, stronger strategic planning powers and development corporations to overcome barriers to development. These seem pretty good on paper and the infrastructure fund is certainly to be welcomed, providing additional funds and also long term certainty against which borrowing can take place.
The notion of Mayoral Development Corporations is an interesting one. Bristol doesn’t exactly have fond memories of its own Development Corporation. But if these can help to unblock strategic sites to deliver housing then it’s a good call, as long as the process doesn’t trample all over local representatives and local communities as their predecessors did.
But what else could have been included to help deal with the housing crisis in our area? Is there much that local councils can actually do given the central policy we are working within? Well, yes maybe. All you have to do is look around at some of the innovative ideas being tried elsewhere to see that there are other options. 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? What about commitments to use more public land to build affordable and social housing, releasing councils from the need to secure the best price for land? The problem with many of these devolution deals is that they have involved a small number of people in a rushed process, so has been little time for creative thinking or even the sharing of ideas. Maybe, now the deal is done, other things can be added?
I’ll end on a final note that has bugged me all throughout the process of debate about devolution in the West of England and that is the constant reference to recreating Avon. As far as I can see we are not setting up a County Structure with politicians and officers in a massive bureaucracy. What is proposed is one additional politician – the metro-mayor, and some form of supporting infrastructure around a Combined Authority. Perhaps for the purposes of debate it would be useful for our political leaders to elaborate on this and share thoughts on what that structure might look like, how many people (if any) it would employ and how much it would cost. All this talk of Avon makes people think about something very different and expensive, instead we should be thinking about a new structure that can help strategic delivery.