Devolution: people care if they’re aware

The West of England’s devolution deal was rubber stamped last night after months of discussion by local leaders.

The agreement unlocks around £1bn in investment in housing, transport and skills. Most people would regard these as important issues that should be locally controlled.

Despite this and the welcome statements that will follow, last night’s response to the news seemed muted.

Councillors in Bristol expressed concerns that the 2,000 responses the recent consultation generated should have been much higher.

The Bristol Post reported these concerns alongside the question: does anyone care?

What’s not to care about?

I think most people do care when spoken to about it on their terms.

Yes, there was skepticism about the deal and opposition to the idea of a metro mayor to oversee it. But this was overshadowed by support for the deal during the consultation.

A metro mayoral election for Bristol, Bath and North East Somerset and South Gloucestershire is set to happen in a few months’ time. That person will have more influence over shaping responses to real and pressing issues than any local authority can hope to have on its own. And North Somerset residents could benefit from infrastructure investment that improves access to their area, despite their council not being part of the deal.

Anyone who is struggling to access housing, stuck in traffic or looking for help into work will care a lot about these things.

Last night’s calls to reach out to as many people as possible are fair enough. It should be pointed out though that a hell of a lot of work went into getting those 2,000 responses in the consultation. This report details the meetings, promotional activity and engagement that took place.

Before people care about this, they need to be aware of it. Then they need to feel able to engage in and shape the conversation around it. Local partners have a chance to do this over the coming months.

For what it’s worth, here are some things that need to happen in order to get a bigger level of engagement in the elections next year.

#1 Keep it simple: I’ve touched on this before. Clarity is essential, as is making it easy to respond with feedback. Check out the questions in the survey (p46 onwards). Much of the content assumes a level of knowledge about the process but says little about how the deal will affect them. It would be interesting to know the number of incomplete responses to the survey, where people started and didn’t finish. It’s early days and the detail needs to be fleshed out. But asking people if they want more control over their own affairs (as recent elections have shown) is bound to be more effective than a question over whether they will support a combined authority led by a metro mayor.

#2 Create content that inspires action: Stories about people have the power to inspire support. Plenty of blog posts have touched on this recently; here’s just one example. This approach could also be used to build a powerful narrative about why this vote matters. This isn’t about sloganeering, or pictures of party activists on doorsteps. It’s about people being given an opportunity to express their reasons for engaging in this conversation, and hopefully persuading others to do the same.

#3 Get local leaders and influencers behind the deal: This is a crucial element that Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees touched on last night. He said the West of England’s ‘brand’ was affected by the failure of all four local authorities to sign up to the deal. Most people think the deal could be better. But it’s going to happen now and it’s up to leaders from all political parties to get behind it and deliver. If they do, they can go back to government for ‘devo 2’. I hope all the parties put strong candidates forward and we that hear credible inspiring and positive (please!) ideas in the campaign that follows.

If we can get these blocks in place, then we may see something that people will care about.

That would represent a hugely positive next step on the road to a strong settlement for the region.