Talking about our devolution: what people told us about the deal

With all that’s happened since June, it’s easy to forget that there’s a big decision ahead about how the West of England runs its affairs.

The devolution deal for ‘greater Bristol’ won’t set most people’s pulses racing. But ask those who live and work here what’s important to them and many will say housing, transport, education, jobs or a combination of the above. As it happens, the West of England’s deal is geared towards addressing all of these issues.

On the table is £1bn to invest over 30 years in housing, transport and skills. Post #EUref, when ‘taking back control’ swayed views about our country’s future, handing responsibility for these issues to local areas seems an obvious step.

It’s probably worth five minutes’ of everyone’s time in the scheme of things.

But the deal comes with a catch that not all partners are happy about. The government wants a ‘metro mayor’, who would chair a combined authority to oversee the new investment. Despite signing the deal originally, North Somerset Council rejected it when it was put to its members.

The remaining three councils later agreed to consult on the proposal, which came to an end last Monday (15 August). A series of roadshows have been put on and an online questionnaire was promoted for people to respond to. I hope people engaged in the process, although the questionnaire was lengthy and difficult to complete. Early indications suggest it had a positive response.

What people told us

As our team is based in Bristol and has a keen interest in the city’s economic prosperity, we were keen to find out more about what businesses in the area think about the proposed deal and the metro mayor. Did their views mirror those of some councillors who fear a return of Avon County Council? Are they bothered about the metro mayor? Does any of it matter? 

To find out more, we put together a simple survey of our own. Five quick questions about people’s views on devolution, the deal and the metro mayor. We emailed it to around 500 of our contacts and promoted it on social media. More than 110 people who work in the area responded to the survey and provided a fascinating insight into local opinion on the deal.

Here are some of the headlines around what we found.

Most respondents want our area to have more responsibility for housing, transport and infrastructure. Almost 80% said councils should have more control over these areas.

The overwhelming majority of respondents thought the investment proposed under the deal was either ‘very important’ or ‘quite important’. Just four people said that it was not what the area needs.

Transport was the most important area for respondents, with housing and infrastructure gaining a similar number of responses. Sustainable energy, place-making and ‘not having a metro mayor’ were also cited as priority areas within individual responses.

There was slightly less enthusiasm for a metro mayor, but a majority of respondents remained in favour of this when questioned.


Deal, or no deal?

There is a caveat, of course: this was not a huge sample and a survey of this nature doesn’t ‘prove’ anything. But it was still large – and local enough – to illustrate what many people who work in the area think about key aspects of the deal.

People seem broadly supportive and want more influence over key areas, with some reservations. Some expressed scepticism about the ability of local authorities to deliver a programme of this nature. The disagreement between those parties over a deal that they all signed has done them few favours in this respect. It may also explain why the Northern Powerhouse – built around strong city-regions – has found more favour with government although questions are being raised about this [£].

Others (including elected members) expressed reservations about the metro mayor and an additional layer of local government. But those views weren’t widely expressed.

I hope the response the three councils have had to their consultation is sufficient to influence a positive outcome that will bring more powers to the West of England.

If they do, there is an opportunity for local leaders and the new mayor to demonstrate how they can make a difference. If they get that chance, I am sure most people will be behind them.

Thank you to everyone who took a few minutes to complete our survey. And if you participated in the consultation about the deal, I salute you!

A version of this blog post first appeared on PPS Group’s website.

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