Devolution deal or no deal?

“This [deal] puts us in the Premiership in terms of major city regions in the UK. It’s going to be good for the whole population in terms of jobs, housing and transport.

“It also addresses some of the issues such as poverty, fairness and equality.”

Bristol’s elected mayor George Ferguson, 16 March 2016

A conversation about how the West of England can take control of its destiny may be starting to happen. And not before time…

After years of discussions, a devolution deal with Government promises to give the area’s local authorities more power over important issues like housing, transport, planning and skills. If ratified, it would unlock £1bn for local growth projects and provide councils with clout to make a bigger difference in these areas.

But there’s a sticking point for some that could derail the deal before it gets going. The government wants to see a ‘metro mayor’, who would chair a combined authority to oversee a joined-up response to the way these major matters are managed. Given the level of concern about this, it’s not certain that all councils will sign off on the deal.

This presents a potentially embarrassing situation where the councils who have shaped the deal on the table may reject it in the final event.

It raises serious questions about how the West of England can build on its success as other areas steam ahead.

If it ain’t broke…

Some may question why this change is needed when the West of England is thriving without it.

The area spanning four local authority boundaries that some wags call CUBA (Councils who Used to Be Avon) is the most economically successful and productive outside London on many key measures.

It is estimated to be worth £30.8bn a year and is continuing to grow. Its creative sector is thriving and attracts people from London in increasing numbers. 

Its advanced engineering, aerospace and technology industries employ thousands of people who put Britain at the forefront of global innovation.

Its commitment to low carbon living saw Bristol awarded European Green Capital status last year.

Bristol is looking closely at the smart cities concept, using data to shape the way services are provided. Barely a week goes by without Bristol or Bath named as the country’s best, happiest or coolest place to be.

I love the area and what it has to offer, and it’s clear that I’m not alone.

But there are issues that need a combined response if this success is to be built on.

Big challenges to tackle

There are big challenges ahead. Estimates suggest the West of England needs at least 85,000 new and affordable homes over the next 20 years to meet the level of growth predicted for the area. Many people believe this figure to be far higher. It will be tested in the consultation on the West of England’s Joint Spatial Plan, which I’ve supported recently. Whatever the final figure, it will be significantly more than the 56,000 homes currently predicted for the area in that time.

Affordable housing of any tenure remains out-of-reach for an increasing number of people. House prices in parts of Bristol and Somerset are more than 10 times average earnings. The West of England isn’t alone in facing this problem. But it does have an opportunity to tackle it differently.

The area’s transport provision is highlighted by campaigners and employers as being a problem area. I lived and worked in Sheffield and Greater Manchester for more than a decade before coming to the South West. I can say that public transport serving these northern city regions is much better than it is here.

An example of the disconnect in the local planning and transport system is illustrated in the slide below, which was given in presentations during the consultation on the Joint Spatial Plan and Transport Study. This map shows areas where car use is highest. These areas tend to be where major housing development has taken place. This has contributed to the problems we experience today.

From Joint Spatial Plan and Transport Study consultation event in January 2016

The devolution deal would give responsibility for transport budgets to this new combined authority. People who struggle to get around the area should hope they grasp the opportunity.

Metro mayor: recipe for gridlock?

Will this deal be accepted if a metro mayor remains part of the package?

Senior councillors in North Somerset and some MPs have voiced concerns about the deal and what it means for local democracy.

And the idea of an elected mayor for Bath and North East Somerset failed to catch on. A proposal to adopt this model for the BANES area was heavily defeated in a referendum on 10 March. The 29% turnout suggests apathy was the real winner, underlining MP Ben Howlett’s concerns that too many people didn’t know about the vote. Bath and North East Somerset Council leader Tim Warren’s response to the vote was not a strong endorsement of the status quo.

“It just showed that the public are happy-ish, we know we are not perfect, but they are happy-ish with what they have and realised the system is as good as you are going to get, for now.”

Others are more supportive. Former Bristol MP and DCLG Minister Stephen Williams thinks we should go for it. Bristol’s current elected mayor George Ferguson and Business West back the deal. And The Economist made the case for better governance, whilst highlighting ‘squabbling’ between the councils involved.

That may be a harsh assessment. All local partners have differences and the councils have demonstrated that they can work together well on important issues.

This deal represents a rational next step and would be good for the West of England, but I can’t see it happening as things stand. A conversation about the future of the West of England’s economy could be drowned out by discussions about process.

Sadly, it’s a conversation that could pass many people by. As residents sit in gridlock and remain stuck on housing waiting lists, they are entitled to expect a shot at something better.