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Brexit – how on earth did we get to here?

June 24, 2016

Like all liberals and progressives in Britain today I am devastated by the country’s decision to vote to leave the European Union. I feared this outcome, having had many encounters with people over the years who believed even the most risible claims about the EU. Couple decades of negative stories about Europe with our political age of social media spreading of myths and a lowering of the reputations of political leaders and you have the ground prepared for a combustion of anger against the establishment.

Much will be written in the coming days and in future history books about this momentous decision. Here are my thoughts, written in sadness and after no sleep. These are the factors that occur to me now and no doubt I’ll think of more when my mind is rested and with more time to be reflective.

1 The referendum is a self inflicted wound by David Cameron. There was no pressing national need to vote on Britain’s membership of the EU. He held the referendum to honour a manifesto pledge he never thought he would have to carry out. I’ve painful scars of such pledges myself and the fact that coalition government ended a year ago meant that Cameron became a prisoner of his own eurosceptic backbenchers. The referendum was held because of the long running Euro psychodrama in the Conservative Party and too much of the coverage of the campaign was about the jousting between the two old Etonians who want the Tory crown.
2 The near annihilation of the Liberal Democrats as a Parliamentary force has robbed Britain of its most distinctive and authentic pro European voice just when it was needed the most. The pro Remain arguments from Conservative ministers relied heavily on fear and hyperbole. The Lib Dems wanted to make a positive case for Britain in the EU but were largely ignored by the broadcasters.
3 The biggest political failure was by the Labour Party leadership. Corbyn’s political history is strongly eurosceptic and his campaigning in the referendum was half hearted and mealie mouthed. Some of the biggest votes for Leave came from strong Labour areas. Places like Sunderland, Nottingham and Blackburn are one party states where only Labour MPs and councillors are in positions to give their communities leadership based on facts. Yet Labour MPs seem to have been scared of their own grassroots and for too long failed to answer their real concerns about immigration. The warnings about economic contraction from the government should have been amplified by Labour in their heartlands. In an economic downturn it’s the poor who suffer first and longest. Voting against the EU may be a kick in the shins for the London elite but it’s really an act of self harm. The positive impact of the EU on poorer communities with lower prices on everything from food to Easyjet flights barely featured in the campaign.
4 We are living in an age where it is easy for myth to triumph over reason. Humnanity may have largely discarded belief in omens and the words of soothsayers. But the thundering cascade of information in our internet and social media age has robbed people of the time to sift through the waters and separate the nuggets of fact from the pile of mythical sludge. Financial literacy is too boring for many people to see that Vote Leave’s claim that £350m a week could be spent on the NHS was both wrong and only a small proportion of government spending. Apparently most of our laws come from Brussels (I somehow failed to notice this when making laws for ten years as an MP) and are made by unelected bureaucrats in the EU Commission. Vote Leave got away with dismissing from minds the elected MEPs (like Farrage and Hannan) or the elected Council of Ministers, which include Gove and Grayling. Oh, in this country we usually call unelected bureaucrats who write laws “civil servants”. MPs and ministers who like me had voted on the accession agreements for Bulgaria, Romanian and Croatia told us that they had no say on Turkey joining.
5 Politicians blaming the media is like sailors moaning about the sea. But newspapers have deluged the public with lies about the EU for decades. Their owners (mainly foreign) have their own agendas. But the BBC failed us all by not acting as an arbiter of facts or showing clearly where the balance of opinion lay. Far too often the lies from Vote Leave were reported with a counterpoint from Remain, showing balance but leaving voters none the wiser and wondering who to believe. Remain was backed by huge numbers of business leaders, economists and other financial experts. But balanced reporting giving equal time to Leave’s tiny number of business backers (a vacuum cleaner designer, tractor maker and pub landlord) made it look evens.

So Britain has voted to dislocate itself from the world’s largest single market. We will now bob about between the U.S., China and the EU. We will have a smaller, quieter voice on the world stage. Decades of successful diplomacy building a Europe of 28 free democracies, most of which were fascist or communist dictatorships at our joining the EEC in 1973, has now been cast aside. The Leavers said that our isolation would be splendid. They now have to show us just how we can prosper in safety in a globalising world.
The most prominent Conservative arguing for a “no” vote in the 1975 referendum was Enoch Powell. I quoted him in my concession speech when I lost Bristol West, saying that all political carreers end in failure. David Cameron gambled the future of the country in order to placate his party. He’s lost his bet and will now lose his job. In coalition his government did much good and I think history will judge that period kindly. David is two days older than me. His premiership of a Conservative government will be remembered for making the biggest foreign policy mistake of our lifetimes.

5 good reasons for Britain to Remain in the European Union

June 13, 2016

After several months campaigning to keep Britain inside the European Union I have clear picture of what people say they want to hear before voting in the referendum. They don’t want scare mongering and are fed up with lies masquerading as facts. The BBC and other objective news outlets ought to deal with the veracity of facts. Both the BBC and Channel Four have their on-line fact checkers but they really ought to be correcting the exaggerations and downright lies during their normal news reporting. The voters also say they want some positive reasons to vote for Britain to remain in the EU. So I will set out my own positive reasons for voting for Britain to Remain in the EU.

We will all have our own reasons for wanting to remain in the European Union but I think there are five main ones:

Opportunity

Britain’s place in the world’s largest single market allows us to work, study and travel with minimal barriers. It’s a two way advantage, enabling Britons to carve out a career in Paris or Rome, with French and Italian workers bringing their skills to strengthen the British economy. That contribution is right across all sectors from retail to the most advanced manufacturing. Britain and my home city of Bristol are world leaders in aerospace. But that competitive advantage depends on French, Spanish and German engineers as well as the Brits who work for the likes of Airbus and Rolls Royce. British universities are also the most numerous among the global top 100, after US institutions. Britain’s place as an innovation powerhouse, inventing the prosperity of the future, depends on freedom of movement for Europe’s brightest and best students and academics to study and research in Oxford, London and Bristol. The freedom to work and learn also applies to travel. We all benefit from visa free travel to 27 other EU member states, with low cost flights to Europe’s leisure and culture attractions. While on holiday in Alicante or Prague we don’t have to worry about the cost of emergency medical situations. I we need to phone home or use the internet then we now have reduced mobile roaming charges. This is the most recent benefit of EU membership and next year the charges are abolished.

Prosperity

Britain’s economy is stronger as part of the world’s largest single market. Our businesses, large and small, benefit from being able to export without tax or regulation obstacles to everywhere from Lisbon to Tallinn, across all of the other 27 member states of the European Union. The EU also bargains on our behalf with the world’s other economies. This is possibly the only area where we have more clout than the USA, the world’s second largest single market. By pooling our sovereignty we enable the EU Trade Commissioner to negotiate the best deal for British businesses and consumers. The EU has fifty trade deals with other large economies. By remaining in the EU we will continue to benefit from the existing deals and the new ones being negotiated. If Britain left the EU we would have to spend years renegotiating the existing deals and of course we’d need a new one with the EU itself. We would be negotiating all these new deals from a much weaker position than our present status as a member of the world’s most powerful trading bloc.

Sustainability

Pollution does not respect national borders. Creating a cleaner, low carbon future will depend on Europe working together, not pulling apart. Cooperation on energy is more likely to lead to reduced dependence on polluting fossil fuels. Everything from common standards in food quality and animal welfare depends on agreement within the single market. Europe’s high standards are a model for the rest of the world and can be protected and advanced in trade agreements.

Security

In an unsecure world, troubled by crime and terrorism, working with our closest neighbours increases our safety. Criminals do not respect national borders but the common European arrest warrant makes sure they have nowhere to hide. Conflict beyond Europe’s frontiers has potential to impact on all of us. Dealing in a humane and fair way with refugees will require cooperation across Europe, much easier to achieve from within the EU. Britain’s membership of both the EU and NATO makes us more secure. Those who would have us leave the EU often falsely attribute our security solely to NATO but overlook the fact that it requires a greater surrender of national sovereignty than anything contemplated by the EU.

Peace

The fact that we live in the most peaceful and prosperous part of the world is all too easily taken for granted. The origins of the EU were the desire of French, German and other European leaders to trade in harmony and remove the need for conflict. My father’s father served in the Eighth Army in North Africa in the Second World War. My grandparents’ generation would all have known someone who served in some capacity. Their parents would have experienced the First World War. The fact that neither my father nor me has had to seriously contemplate conflict in Western Europe is the major achievement of the European Union. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union the EU has extended east and the Poles, Romanians and Estonians now enjoy peace and greater prosperity. Peace enables prosperity to grow and people that are prosperous will not risk their livelihood with war.

Whatever your preferred reason for remaining in the European Union, one thing is certain. The future of humanity depends on nation states working together to solve common problems. Working together raises living standards and lifts people out of poverty. Working together makes us safer in a world that has many sources of conflict and trouble. Global health problems are best tackled by the World Health Organisation. Our defence and security is more certain through both NATO and the UN. The European Union is arguably the world’s most successful international club. Most of the remaining small European nations not in the EU are in the queue to join. A British exit at this point in our history would be seen as an act of madness by our fellow Europeans. Britain’s future lies inside our common European home.
To support the cross party Stronger In campaign and volunteer for helping to secure a Remain vote go to http://www.strongerin.co.uk/
To support my own party, which has consistently made the case for Britain’s positive engagement inside the EU go to http://www.libdems.org.uk/europe

At last, some transparency on green capital cash

June 8, 2016

Bristol’s new Mayor has ordered the publication of a tranche of invoices held by the council, shedding new light on the secretive spending of green capital millions. After bumping into a 40 day legal deadline for a freedom of information request from my Lib Dem colleague and former councillor Christian Martin the council has published “about 600” invoices held by its accounts department.

I welcome this move but more needs to be done. The invoices have been published without any context. We don’t know how they relate to the broad account headings referred to in my previous blog posts and questions to the council. It’s like being given a big box of jigsaw pieces, without the lid giving you the picture you’re trying to put together. But it’s a start.

The invoices make for interesting and eye brow raising reading. See for yourself here https://www.bristol.gov.uk/documents/20182/33519/Bristol+Green+Capital+Invoices+-+redacted+pt1.pdf/24afca97-afe7-4f5c-add9-cff42af0d047
Inevitably there will be lots more questions about whether some of the expenditure was good value for taxpayers’ money. Some of the projects have a tenuous relationship to making Bristol more sustainable and an exemplar for the rest of Europe. I thought the foggy footbridge in the harbour was pretty naff but am now outraged to see invoices from an organisation called In Between Time charging £41,000 for puffing some smoke.

The real scandal is the trousering of tens of thousands of pounds by lots of consultants on a variety of generous day rates. They also racked up quite a lot of car and taxi expenses, including one £50 taxi ride from a cafe on Whiteladies Road to Weston Super Mare. Presumably it was after the trains stopped running from Clifton Down…

There was also a media merry go round. Some media outlets were paid for their coverage and a London based agency was paid huge fees for monitoring the level of coverage.

Quite a lot of information is clearly missing. Personal details have been redacted from the invoices. So we don’t know the identity of some of the people who charged up to £5,000 for their motivational speeches on city governance…plus their 4 star hotel stays.

I’m glad Mayor Rees intends to appoint an independent body to review the year. We need to know the full story and there will be lessons for future big events. What is a real shame is that some of this wasteful expenditure could have been better spent on local projects that would have had immediate as well as lasting community impact. A lot of good work was done by schools and community groups and some more of that £8million of taxpayers could have increased their impact.

I am proud that my Lib Dem colleagues on Bristol Council put in place the policies on recycling, energy and transport that made a bid for green capital status credible. I’m glad we won and were able to showcase Bristol. But it’s a shame that some peoples eyes clearly lit up at the prospect of spending lots of free cash. This would not have happened if there had been an open procurement process and real time openness on spending. In future transparency and sustainability must go together.

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Candidate

May 3, 2016

Spare a thought for the thousands of candidates up and down the country who are now in the final stretch of the race to election day. Some of them will have entered the race on nomination day three weeks ago with little expectation of success. Such paper candidates are just flying the flag for their parties, to give the voters maximum choice. Others will be foot sore and mentally wrung out after a four year marathon run for elected office as a councillor or mayor in England or for membership of the devolved legislatures in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Some candidates will be the defending champion, or incumbent in political speak. Most will be challengers, looking to topple the champions off their podiums. But most will, in the end, be losers. For there are tens of thousands of candidates in this race of democracy and there can only be so many winners for the just over 3,000 places available. They all deserve our thanks for stepping up, for without them we have no democracy.

It’s become fashionable to decry politicians. Journalists report politics as soap opera, with a cast list of tricksters, con artists, crooks and weirdos. The impression is given that they’re all in it for themselves, incapable of working together or taking long term decisions. This is all reflected back on the doorstep, often with the curious view that “you’re all the same” and equally bad. This set of poor opinions is mainly about the politicians who are actually in office and for challenging candidates the word “change” can be their most potent weapon.

To become the office holder the candidate must win an election. Most journalists, columnists and other critics of the political animal have no idea of the sheer amount of physical effort and mental endurance candidates suffer in order to cross the winning post. Politics, or at least party politics, is a team sport. The candidates are the elite athletes but they are joined in the race by teams of activists. Many of these supporters are just as engrossed in the race, willingly volunteering hours of their time to help their candidate succeed. Candidates and activists both spend a lot of their time on the staples of campaigning – canvassing and delivering. Both have their highs and lows.

The late and much missed Liberal MP David Penhaligan once told a party conference “if you’ve got something to say, put it on a leaflet and shove it through a letterbox” and delivering leaflets is a mainstay of campaigning for Liberal Democrats today. For those who have never done it, leaflet delivery must seem mundane and easy. Some streets are indeed a breeze. A team of activists can deliver hundreds of leaflets an hour to Coronation Street style terraced houses. A round of fifty detached houses with long drives could easily take an hour for one activist to deliver.

Time and volume are not the only factors in the delivery logistics of getting a leaflet inside an elector’s home. There are lots of obstacles. Gates are often fiddly to open. When entering a large garden of a detached or semi-detached house there is then that nervous moment walking up the path to the front door when you don’t want to hear a “woof” as Fido comes bounding round the corner. Dogs are the worst nightmare for the deliverer and canvasser.

The danger isn’t over when you reach the front door. Letterboxes these days often have triple layers for your flimsy leaflet to penetrate. Beyond the outer metal flap there’s a thicket of draught excluding brush and then another metal flap, with a spring resisting its opening more than a chink. You don’t want to leave your precious propaganda hanging in the wind. Householders find it an irritating advertisement that there may be nobody at home and you don’t want the risk of opponents whisking your leaflet away. The inexperienced activist will push their hand through the letterbox and then be startled by a thud on the back of the door as Fido’s paws crash into the door and his jaws close, if you’re lucky on your leaflet but it could be your hand.

One of our Bristol council candidates in 2006 had the appalling experience of the dog on the other side of the door gnawing his hand and refusing to let go. My colleague fainted in the doorway, such was the pain. When I saw him later his fingers looked like exploded sausages. Delivering political leaflets can be dangerous. I’ve always been cautious and in thirty years of delivering have had many narrow escapes but no bite marks.

Dogs and draught excluders aren’t the only irritants. The position of the letter box can be a pain. Vertical boxes, at shoulder height and close to the doorframe are hard to negotiate, when balancing your bundle or bag in one hand and the leaflet in another. But far worse are the ankle level boxes. Whoever thought these were a good design should be shot. To get the leaflet through the letter box you must crouch down, delicately poised while pushing your leaflet through the box that is just a few centimetres above ground level. Too many of these and you get bad knees and backs.

When I was Communities Minister one of my responsibilities was building regulations and I presided over the final stages of the housing standards review. It suddenly occurred to me that I could surely just make illegal these infernal letter boxes. I would be a hero to political activists and postmen alike. But the officials would have none of it. The proposal wasn’t in the original consultation so Sir Humphrey said “No Minister.”

Having been thwarted on the great letter box reform 2014, I propose that architects and housebuilders should be made to deliver leaflets to their houses and flats, negotiating the entry phones, coded entry systems and other barriers to the simple act of delivery. If they’re lucky they won’t get bitten but they almost certainly will get grazed knuckles, broken finger nails and paper slice cuts that really sting.

So are there any highs to delivering political leaflets? It’s moderate exercise in most streets but basement flats and upper storeys with their own entrances can turn a delivery session into a workout. It makes up for the time you don’t have to go to the gym, well almost. I quite like looking at front gardens and enjoy the novelty of doing a round that I’ve never walked before. Oh, and apart from the physical dangers there’s also the moral hazard of what do you do about the “no junk mail” signs? Personally, I ignore them. Election leaflets are essential to democracy, on a higher level to pizza adverts and estate agent guff.

Canvassing in person, as opposed to by telephone, has all the risks and rewards of delivering. But the object of the exercise is to chat to a voter and the experience is variable. The strict purpose of canvassing is to find out who either supports your candidate, is undecided between your candidate and someone else or is already firmly committed to a rival and won’t be budged. But the good candidate will use each encounter to build up knowledge of the undiluted opinions and concerns of the electorate. A month’s worth of canvassing across a mix of communities can give you more insight than any number of the focus groups so beloved of party HQs.

While most activists are prepared to deliver leaflets (though some think it’s beneath them) many are terrified about canvassing. But the truth is that the vast majority of doorstep encounters are polite and pleasant. Very few people are rude and if they are it provides an anecdote for team drinks in the pub.

A good canvassing experience would be a “full house” – everyone is in at the door you’ve just knocked, they all agree to speak to you and they’re all going to vote for you! These three things rarely go together. Going down a typical city street about half of the people are out. About 10% of the people you actually meet are not the people registered to vote at that address. When you talk to one registered voter at the address, quite often the others prefer to stay inside eating their dinner or watching Eastenders.

It’s different if you’re the actual candidate, people are more receptive and willing to chat. If you’re really lucky they invite you in for a glass of wine or in cold weather for a warm up by the hall radiator. This is a breach of the first rule of canvassing, get through as many names as possible and don’t linger. The rule may also be breached if the person who comes to the door is quite attractive. A canvassing hottie can be the highlight of the evening.

Apart from dogs (the owners invariably reassure you that they won’t hurt you) the worst aspect of canvassing is the sheer indifference of many voters. While allowing for the fact that you’ve turned up on their doorstep unexpectedly, you’re not after their money or even that much of their time. But many voters really don’t want to engage, even for a minute. You or one of your volunteers may have delivered 30 to 40 leaflets to them over the last four years and you want to spend the next four or five years of your life representing them on the council or in parliament. But you have to accept many people are neither impressed by this act of democratic munificence or interested in your much belittled trade of politics. Some can be won round to giving you a one minute audience by the use of various magic words such as “parking” or “school places” but once someone gives you the initial brush off it’s best to accept it and move on to a more willing household.

It is a shame that people don’t make the most of these chance encounters. And it really is a chance event. I was never that good at working out probabilities but given that if you’re a parliamentary candidate there could be 50,000 doors to knock on, then even at an optimistic rate of 50 doors at a time it would take a thousand evenings to get round. Remember that half of the houses will be out, so it must be massive odds against anyone actually meeting the person who could be their MP or councillor.

After a stint of canvassing or delivering the activist can relax but the candidate has much more to do before the election is over. There are letters and emails to read and write. You need to tell your social media friends and followers how hard you’ve been working. At its best social media allows the candidate to interact with many more people than via canvassing. But while most people are polite in person, on Twitter or Facebook plain civility often goes out of the window. People have always slagged off politicians while down the pub but the candidate didn’t have to hear it. Now they can be told on a daily basis that they’re a useless, lying, money grasping Nazi. At the end of 2014 I disciplined myself to stop looking at my phone after 11.30pm otherwise I’d be going to bed thinking I was the most hated man in Bristol. I slept slightly more soundly.

Elections cost money. This seems to be a surprise to many people, uniting journalists who tell people that donations to parties are obviously evil and campaign staff who are great at spending money but not at raising it. US Congressmen have two year terms and spend a chunk of each day after one election fundraising for the next one and if they’re unlucky for the candidacy primary that they have to win before the actual election. It’s not quite that bad in Britain but there aren’t many years without an election at local, national or European level and there are year round campaign activities that need to be funded. Local political parties will hold dinners, quizzes and raffles to raise a few hundred pounds at a time. But the serious money needed to fight an intensive and long running campaign will only come if the candidate picks up the phone and asks someone for a big cheque. It’s also true that many candidates make huge financial sacrifices themselves in order to stand for election. Only an idiot would go into British politics to make money.

So come election day, do take the trouble to vote for one of your hard working candidates. While I’ve written this piece drawing from my own Liberal Democrat experiences I’m sure it will resonate with candidates and activists from the Conservative, Labour, Green and nationalist parties.

By polling day the hard working candidate who is determined to win will have walked miles around the streets in all weather, been smiled at and sworn at, eaten too much late night junk food and if they’re careless or unlucky will have a campaign scar from a dog bite. They will have endured experiences that would fall foul of health and safety and hate crime laws if they were applying for any job other than elected office. Only some of them can win and only some of them really deserve to win. Make sure you select the right choice to work for your community in the years ahead.

Walter Ayles – the Bristol conscientious objector

April 17, 2016

Read more…

Why vote for a Liberal Democrat Mayor and Council in Bristol?

April 10, 2016

The starting gun has been fired for the race to become Bristol’s second directly elected Mayor and to fill 70 places for councillors. It’s the first time since 1999 that all of Bristol’s councillors are being elected at the same time. We will have to wait until 2020 before we go to the polls again so these elections are really important for the future direction of the city.

Most but not all of the city council’s powers lie in the hands of the Mayor. He or she is in charge of social services, the council’s biggest responsibility and the service that swallows up most of the budget. Building on the new Better Care Fund and partnership working between social care and the NHS will be a huge challenge for the next Mayor as we cope with an aging society. The Mayor also sets the council’s policy on culture and leisure, waste disposal and has limited powers over transport and housing. He proposes the council’s budget and hence the level of council tax but the budget has to be passed by a majority of the councillors. The councillors also determine planning applications and grant drink and entertainment licences. While the Mayor acts as a figurehead and ambassador for the whole city the councillors act as local champions for the 34 wards that make up the city.

So most of the power is now in the hands of the Mayor, which makes the character and beliefs of that person rather significant. A city leader certainly needs to be someone who is prepared to make tough decisions. The Mayor also needs to be a good communicator, getting his message across to Bristolians and also giving the best impression of the city to the rest of the world. But a good communicator listens as well as broadcasts. Tough decisions are more likely to be accepted if they are explained patiently and arrived at after a period of genuine consultation. That’s why I think the calm, deliberative style of Kay Barnard is better suited to the role of Mayor of Bristol than the shouty, flinty, irascible and brook no criticism style of Mayor Ferguson.

A strong Mayor is a better Mayor if she faces tough scrutiny. That’s where the calibre of councillors comes in, as it falls to them to scrutinise the activities of the Mayor and the members of the cabinet of assistant mayors. They are also able to spend money on local priorities through the neighbourhood partnerships. Liberal Democrat councillors have reputations for working hard for their wards throughout the year and their whole term of office. Quite often, councillors from Labour and the Conservatives pop up when there’s an election on but are invisible in between.

Kay Barnard and the full slate of 70 Liberal Democrat candidates have published a manifesto setting out how they would run Bristol over the next four years. It’s summarised as “Six to Fix”:

1 Public transport
The Mayor will work with neighbouring authorities to negotiate with the government for more powers over buses in the Bristol and Bath cities region. Like Transport for London, or buses in Greater Manchester, this will enable better planning of routes, regulation of fares and the introduction of cashless payment system. This would speed up bus journeys and reduce congestion on the roads. The Lib Dems also want more segregated cycle lanes and will expand the network of bus and train park and rides. Mayor Kay Barnard would also review existing resident parking schemes, in particular excessive yellow line restrictions. There would also be parking concessions in other parts of the city for residents who have paid for a permit.

2 A more sustainable Bristol

When the Liberal Democrats ran the council for most of the period from 2005 to 2012 Bristol’s recycling rate shot up and at about 50% was among the best urban records in the country. In the last few years it has dipped. The Lib Dems would set a target of 70% of the city’s waste to be recycled by 2020. We would also seek to reduce traffic pollution in the city centre and pedestrianise more of the old city. The surplus from the city energy company would be invested in home energy efficiency, reducing the carbon footprint of Bristol’s houses. Bristol has a large number of parks and open spaces. They are great for recreation, mental health and are also a haven for wildlife. We would find new sources of revenue to invest in their future.

3 Make council tax fairer

Council tax is an unfair, regressive property tax. A Liberal Democrat Mayor would seek devolution of council tax policy from central government so that there could be more relief for poorer households and higher bands for those with the most expensive properties. We would also want to charge double council tax on long term empty houses, at the moment we can charge 150%.

4 Transparency and accountability

A Lib Dem Mayor would introduce a “transparency revolution” to the council, opening up more details about finances and contracts. We will seek more powers from central government over health and housing. A Lib Dem Mayor would be more consensual and would disperse power away from City Hall to Bristol’s many distinct neighbourhoods.

5 Make Bristol affordable and inclusive
We would bring forward housing development on brownfield sites within the city. We would make sure that the homeless and also refugees get swift and easy to access advice and support. The Mayor would work the Avon and Somerset Police Commissioner to implement a local version of the Liberal Democrat national policy of legalising regulated sales of cannabis.

6 Make Bristol prosperous and vibrant

A Lib Dem Mayor would lead a bid for Bristol to be European Cultural Capital for the next available award, in 2023. We would seek the power to charge a nightly levy on hotel rooms, with the proceeds reinvested in culture and boosting tourism. We would work with the city’s colleges and small and medium enterprises to expand the number of apprentice places.

The above is more than a wish list. It is a credible series of proposals that build on the Liberal Democrats’ record of running Bristol for more years than any other party this century. The party can also draw on the experience of Liberal Democrats in running other major cities such as Cardiff, Liverpool, Newcastle, Portsmouth and Sheffield.

Finally, this is an odd period of elections for me. I first ran for office in 1992 and since then I have always been a candidate or the incumbent councillor or MP. This year I am helping a great Liberal Democrat team in Bristol, many of them fighting their first election. I’m confident that our electoral fortunes will improve in 2016 after a difficult time when we were in national government. It’s all too easy for people to decry party politics and politicians. But without them we wouldn’t have a democratic choice of ideas and a range of people to deliver them. Come rain or shine, in good times and bad for us politically, Liberal Democrats will be out delivering our leaflets and knocking on doors to talk to people. The Bristol team deserve great success.

You can read the Bristol Liberal Democrat Manifesto, with a summary of the transformation in the city when we led the administration, here http://www.bristollibdems.org/sixtofix
You can find your local candidates here. Most wards elect two councillors, some elect one or three. Everyone will have a first and second preference vote for the Bristol Mayor and also for the Avon and Somerset Police and Crime Commissioner, where the Lib Dem candidate is Paul Crossley. http://www.bristollibdems.org/2016_council_candidates

Should Bristol and Bath have a Metro Mayor?

March 18, 2016

I’m surprised that the Budget announcement that Greater Bristol and Bath are to get a Metro Mayor took some people by surprise. The Chancellor has long been an enthusiast for elected Mayors and during the last year of the Coalition Government he tried to tie a Metro Mayor onto each of the Combined Authorities being negotiated for Greater Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield. Once the Bristol area caught up it was always clear that any deal would come with a Metro Mayor, particularly as we are now under a majority Conservative government. Indeed, the three unitary council leaders and the Bristol Mayor knew this when they signed off the deal with the Treasury so they should have done more to prepare local opinion. The new Mayor and Combined Authority could be in place by May 2017.

But is the Metro Mayor and the associated deal for a combined authority a good thing? It’s certainly better than the existing arrangement of four unitary councils with no overarching strategic body that we’ve now endured for 20 years since Avon County Council was abolished. The first thing to make clear that what is proposed now is NOT a recreation of Avon. The county council on which I served was the provider of all the main local services to Bristol, Bath, Weston and Thornbury. The six lower tier district councils had minimal powers. When Avon and the districts were abolished the four new unitary councils became all-purpose service providers. That will remain essentially unchanged, though another Budget announcement makes the mistake of stripping away schools planning from local government with every school becoming an academy.

What is proposed is a new suite of strategic powers on the economy, skills, housing and transport that will be exercised by the Mayor of the West of England either under his or her sole control or held by the new West of England Combined Authority that will be chaired by the Mayor. These strategic powers will fill the void left when Avon was abolished. Other conurbations such as Greater Manchester or Merseyside retained strategic transport authorities when the Thatcher government abolished the Metropolitan counties in 1986. Avon never had the same powers but the fragmentation of its powers among four new councils has been disastrous. Transport planning is the most obvious local government failure mentioned to me by the public in the last 20 years. Our buses are unregulated. There’s no cashless payment system. We have no trams and our local rail network services are way short of potential. The new Mayor will have the power to franshise bus services and will introduce smart ticketing. The Mayor will also have a transport budget, devolved from central government.

I think the opportunity of sorting out our transport mess and the ability to plan economic growth is something that should be seized. Now is not the time for current councillors (and officers) to make faux protests about extra politicians (there’ll only be one, the Mayor) or being run “by and for Bristol” just to protect their own powerbases.

Personally I would have gone a lot further and restructured the whole of local government in Bristol, Gloucestershire and Somerset. Four larger unitaries should cover Greater Bristol (the existing city council plus the area south of the M4, west of the ring road and also the area out to the airport and Portishead) Bath (including Frome) with Weston transferred to a single tier Somerset and Thornbury and Yate to a single tier Gloucestershire. But the government clearly has no intention of upsetting too many Tory councillors.

So we have to embrace and make work what is on offer. Governments under Thatcher, Major, Blair and Brown diminished and belittled local government, starving it of resources and stripping away powers. What was left was emasculated by constantly changing edicts and targets. The Coalition Government began a reversal of this trend. The new Conservative government has ministers who are genuine enthusiasts for localism. It also has ministers who think local government shouldn’t be trusted to run a sweet shop. So reforms will be piecemeal and will still leave England’s cities and counties the poor relations of their European and North American counterparts.

The deal on offer is a major improvement on where we are now and the public will not forgive any small minded defence of vested interests that get in the way of it being implemented. The West of England cities region of Bristol and Bath already has the strongest sub regional economy in England. The new Mayor could help that economy grow still further, supported by the right skills, housing and transport. Let’s get on with it.

UPDATE

On 29th June three of the councils in the area, Bristol, Bath & NE Somerset and South Gloucestershire, voted to proceed to the next stage of a public consultation. This will run from 4th July to 15th August. The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government will then decide whether to lay an order in Parliament, which the councils will have an opportunity to object. North Somerset decided at an earlier meeting to opt out.

Here is the government document on the new Mayor and Combined Authority:

160315_West_of_England_Devolution_Agreement_Draft_-_FINAL

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