West of England Devolution

cropped-cropped-rivers-of-gold51.jpgThe 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.

 

City Mayors or LEPs – who decides?

DSCN0159Following on from my last blog about the need for LEP Economic Plans to take note of poverty and social inclusion issues it seems timely to consider the role of LEPs. From many of the comments received in response to that blog (for example on LinkedIn discussion groups) there appears to be a view that LEPs are there to create jobs and that others should be (and are) responsible for thinking about difficult issues like addressing poverty. Indeed, if you consider that LEPs are supposedly business led and their focus is on jobs growth and GDP growth, then perhaps it is wrong to assume that they would have anything to say about social inclusion or how the jobs they create could be made more accessible to those most in need. Personally I disagree, but clearly there is some opinion out there that says LEPs are small organisations with limited funds and staffing so their focus should be on core issues in order to actually achieve anything.

In my view, this brings into question the whole issue of why we need LEPs, what their role is and why, particularly in cities, they are the right vehicle to deliver on economic growth in isolation. You could level these questions at various aspects of the role of LEPs by asking why they were set up in the first place – was it because the current government had such a low opinion of local authorities that it thought this was a better solution, and they were of course desperate to get rid of the Regional Development Agencies, so had to replace them with something? Or was it because they thought business could do a better job of deciding where investment in roads, buildings and other development should be? You could equally argue about he negative impact these types of quangos have on democratic accountablity, taking decision making away from locally elected politicians and putting it in the hands of appointed boards full of business people who are accountable to no one. Add to that issues around what role local communities have in LEPs and how they can engage with these quangos and their plans and it begins to create an interesting but perhaps negative picture.

Perhaps more importantly, the question that springs to my mind is about LEPs and city regions – when we have combined authorities working across some of our key cities and their hinterland and we have directly elected mayors in some of our core cities, how does this work when you also have LEPs, sometimes covering different spatial areas? Add to that the issue about whether or not you can really consider economic growth without serious attention to issues of poverty and social inclusion (and of course environmental sustainability) then you can see the landscape of decisions, plans and strategies becomes somewhat cluttered – who really holds the power and makes the decisions?

The recent launch by the Centre for Cities of their Think Cities initiative which sees cities as the focus for change and believes empowering cities as the mechanism to tackling a range of urban issues is critical and you can begin to imagine just where some of these clashes and tensions may occur. I can’t help but agree with the Centre for Cities, cities are where the most significant growth will be seen and where the greatest changes can be made to provide solutions to our biggest problems around housing, jobs, public services and skills. But where city authorities have to compete with, or operate through, LEPs this is bound to reduce impact, increase confusion and complexity and water down ideas and change. When you have to get agreement from other councils to every decision, plan and strategy, then too often the lowest common denominator is what you end up with. The idea of directly elected mayors was to create accountable, visible leadership in an area, but by introducing LEPs into the equation the government have significantly weakened the ability of those mayors to deliver on ideas and innovation because they are effectively working with one hand tied behind their backs.

But even ignoring the fact of added confusion and complexity, what about the functions and roles of LEPs, what are they there for and why are they supposedly best placed to deliver on local economic growth? LEPs are charged with providing “strategic leadership on local economic priorities” including planning, housing, transport, skills, jobs etc a pretty big agenda, but when you consider they were set up with little or no funding, have few staff and limited resource, you have to question whether this is just too much? Would they be better focused on areas that clearly require significant input from business, such as the skills agenda and business support? Why should they be responsible for planning or housing issues when these have been core local council domains in the past, and indeed many would argue, should continue to be led by those with the democratic accountability rather than those with potential for conflict and vested interest?

With a reduced role focused on business support and skills I could see a key role for LEPs working across larger geographies, supporting the work of city authorities to deliver on jobs, housing, planning, social inclusion and sustainability (amongst other things). But their current diverse role is clearly too much for many LEPs to grapple with and we are in danger of missing some key links across agendas and of delivering on very little, as we stretch LEPs beyond their capabilities and abilities.

This should be an important issue for Party Manifestos going into the 2015 election. If we are being encouraged to think cities, then we need to address the existing landscape of decision making to properly put cities at the forefront of our economy. For me that means that, at least in city regions, there is no place for LEPs.

A Focus on South Bristol – Let’s Redraw the Economic Map of the Bristol City Region

South Bristol has many advantages – it is close to the city centre, surrounded by beautiful countryside and well located in relation to Bristol Airport. It has some lovely houses, in garden suburb layouts, with large gardens and green open spaces close by. But to many it is perceived as inaccessible, with a poor quality environment, unskilled workforce and high levels of crime and anti-social behaviour.

Look at any table of statistics for the Bristol City region – on house prices, crime, educational attainment, skills or employment levels and one thing will quickly become obvious. The central area and the northern fringe are making great strides but South Bristol is lagging behind:

  • The worst 2 areas nationally for lack of attainment amongst children/young people are in Knowle West
  • 6 areas in South Bristol are in the most deprived 100 nationally
  • More than a third of people in South Bristol live in areas which fall in the most deprived 10% nationally in terms of education, skills and training deprivation
  • Of the most deprived 20 areas in Bristol in terms of education, skills and training, 18 are in South Bristol
  • 35% of people aged 16-74 in South Bristol have no qualifications
  • Four areas in South Bristol are in the most deprived 10% nationally in terms of health deprivation and disability
  • Of the worst 10 areas in Bristol in terms of crime, eight are in South Bristol
  • 3 areas in South Bristol are in the worst 50 areas in England in terms of crime.

That’s a sad reflection on Bristol itself and all those who have been, or are, in a position to do something about it. But with vision, leadership and ambition all that can change. So why hasn’t it? We have been talking about South Bristol as an area of multiple deprivation and disadvantage for decades, but how much has actually changed? Yes there have been some improvements in recent years; new schools, the redevelopment of Symes Avenue, new housing at Lakeshore, a new community hospital, skills centre and a leisure centre. But is this the best we can do?

Just what are our aspirations for South Bristol?  From so many points of view it seems once more to be left behind. Do the Local Enterprise Partnership have plans to bring jobs, regeneration, housing and skills to the area or has it been forgotten in their plans or maybe just placed in the too difficult to handle box? Have the Mayor and Bristol City Council got plans and will they work with the local community to see what they want?

From the outside looking in, South Bristol just seems to keep missing out and will continue to lag behind other areas of the city until it features high enough in political aspirations and action.

Rather than allocate South Bristol as an Enterprise Zone or major growth area, like other areas of the city region, the Local Enterprise Partnership instead decided to focus entirely on transport links – the North Fringe to Hengrove BRT route and the South Bristol Link Road. Will this really deliver what is needed for South Bristol or is it just the tip of the iceberg?

South Bristol could be so different but what do we need to do to make it happen and whose job is it?

Is this something the local communities themselves can take control of and outline what they would like different areas of South Bristol to be like, or is it up to the Local Enterprise Partnership to remember to include it in their plans and focus funding on the area, or is it down to the Mayor?

I suspect it should be a combination of all of these but so far there is little evidence to suggest that much is actually happening?

The economic map of the Bristol City region could be redrawn to embrace South Bristol and make it the focus of everyone’s attention but will it ever happen? I’ve been waiting 20 years to see real change and all I can see at the moment is piecemeal, ad hoc, low quality developments that look like no one in authority really cares about the people or the area!