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Bring back Avon?

September 9, 2010

This morning I did an interview with Radio Bristol’s breakfast show on whether we should bring back Avon.  It’s been suggested by a local business big-whig (the Labour supporting John Savage) that the four unitary councils should all be chopped and replaced by a super council that would be more efficient.

I’ve got some sympathy with this view.  I was an Avon County Councillor in the three years before it was abolished by the Major government in 1996.  Until then the county ran all the major services for almost a million people. It covered the whole greater Bristol economic region and planned transport and economic development.  The six district councils such as Bristol and Wansdyke looked after local planning applications, collected the rubbish and ran leisure centres.

Since 1996 we’ve had the four “unitary” councils of Bristol, Bath & NE Somerset, South Gloucestershire and North Somerset.  There are four sets of highly paid chief executives and heads of education, social services, planning, etc.  Many are paid more than the Prime Minister.  Then there’s the Avon Fire Authority, which used to overseen by the public protection committee of Avon council.

Personally – and I know I won’t be speaking for all of my Lib Dem colleagues in the West of England, I think abolishing Avon was a mistake. Replacing it by four new councils made that mistake worse.  The administration by top officers is more expensive and the lack of political strategic oversight means that we’ve fallen way behind other city regions, most obviously in transport.

But I wouldn’t turn the clock back.  I think Bath needs its own council – and could be joined by more of the historic county of Somerset.  Similarly Weston Super Mare.   But the city of Bristol has an absurdly truncated boundary.  Travelling up Gloucester Road or Filton Avenue and you are suddenly welcomed to South Gloucestershire.   The same happens in the east of the city.  But we’re not out in green fields – we’re still in densely populated Bristol.  Yet different sides of the same street might have their rubbish collected on different days and even have different recycling schemes.

Dear old First Bus runs services across the city boundary and doesn’t get regulated by any of the councils.  The answer to this could be an Integrated Transport Authority across the 4 areas.  I urged the last government to do this during Prime Minister’s questions.  But it would only deal with some of the gaps in the strategic planning of the greater Bristol economy.

I think we need a new Bristol Council, covering Filton and Kingswood as well as the current city area.  It will probably be hard to get a consensus on this – indeed my coalition colleague Chris Skidmore MP was on the radio with me taking the opposite view.

But our new government needs to save money and it wants a rejuvenation of local government.  Empowering local communities, call it community politics or the big society, could start right here by giving us the democratic control over the area we all know as Bristol.

Finally, of course the remaining councils would have much scope to cooperate.  A couple of months ago, with Liam Fox MP, I launched at a House of Commons reception a new branding for our area – the region of “Bristol & the West of England”….so at least we no longer need to talk of the county that used to be Avon.

40 Comments leave one →
  1. Art of the Possible permalink
    September 10, 2010 2:41 pm

    Seems like a reasonable idea. Avon was surely only abolished from political motives anyway – Tories never liked it, nor most of the Redcliffe Maud recommendations, and the rural outskirts called Avon a four-letter word.

    Greater Bristol has been on a lot of agendas for the last decades.

    At very least it should make it easier to fill the whole lot in with houses, eh?

    • September 10, 2010 5:41 pm

      I think Bristolians care very much about their green belt. I think that’s an issue that unites most politicians either side of the current city boundary.

      • September 13, 2010 11:24 am

        I agree Stephen Bristolians do care about their green belt it is an issue which unites a lot of politicians across boundaries.

        They also care about their parks

        In the spirit on non partisan politics. How do you feel about the Council’s plans to sell off parts of Bristolians parks for housing?

      • Cllr Jon Rogers permalink
        September 13, 2010 5:37 pm

        Afternoon Darren

        As he has previously said, Stephen updates his own blog, and as you will see from his latest entry he is in the States for 10 days. So he is unlikely to respond in your six hour time frame.

        The Parks and Green Spaces Strategy was started in 2004, agreed in 2008 and officers instructed to proceed with categorising land in 2009.

        The strategy has had cross party support, but throughout it has been recognised that once the details started to emerge about what might be classed as “low grade green space”, then local residents and local ward councillors would inevitably raise concerns. This is absolutely right and the comments and feedback will be carefully collated and considered

        It is sad that once an agreed strategy starts to be implemented, conservative and labour councillors start acting in a partisan way, rather than reflecting their residents concerns.

  2. Alex Woodman permalink
    September 13, 2010 6:47 pm

    How ironic that Darren uses phrases like “spirit of non partisan politics”, only then to be brazenly partisan on Twitter and Facebook. Such utter hypocrisy.

    As I have explained previously, Stephen updates his blog personally. He is away at the moment, hence no response. As for the Twitter account, it was set up purely as a way of indicating when new posts have been put on the blog – it is updated automatically by WordPress when Stephen posts something. Stephen’s staff have no day-to-day involvement in either (and therefore do not appreciate being called inept flunkies!)

    As for criticisms of Stephen for ‘not engaging’, he’s actually very proactive in responding to queries on his blog when he is able to. He also receives hundreds of letters/e-mails every week, all of which are responded to, holds a four-hour surgery every Friday (longer and more frequent than most MPs) and frequently visits countless schools, charities, community groups etc in Bristol West.

    • September 13, 2010 8:01 pm

      I realise you are both Lib Dem Councillors and might want to pre-empt an independent position from my Lib Dem MP but I think Stephen has the right to speak for himself. He is his own man after all. So we’ll wait til he’s back.

      I’ve just asked my MP for his opinion. I don’t know why you are both attacking me on this blog. I wasn’t addressing either of you.

      Jon I don’t want a politicised history of the policy I just wanted Stephen’s answer. What is so controversial about that? Which, Alex, is why I asked him the question in the spirit of non partisan politics.

      Alex, nowhere have I called you or any other employee of Stephen Williams “inept flunkies” I find these bizarre and aggressive misrepresentations a little concerning. Perhaps you should think before you post statements about others which aren’t true. It’s just not very nice.

      Lastly I don’t have anything against Lib Dems… some of my best friends are Lib Dems… I’m about as partisan as a normal Bristolian in the face of these cuts. Perhaps its that which you don’t like?

      Oh well time for another senseless pummelling from the 2 of you I guess.

      • Alex Woodman permalink
        September 13, 2010 8:56 pm

        Okay, fair enough. You have not called me an ‘inept flunkie’. However: I’m pretty sure that says inept.

        Or how about the message sent on Facebook this evening, which read: “So far neither Stephen or an office flunkey have responded. So here’s the question I’d like to ask now: Do you think Stephen and his staff are arrogant or inept or maybe a little bit of both?”

        Rhetorical question or statement, they’re just as bad, and you should be ashamed.

  3. September 13, 2010 9:13 pm

    There’s nothing quite as embarrassing as the false moral outrage of a professional machine politician. Do you really think a normal member of the public thinks I should be ashamed for asking a question? What nonsense and bluster.

    Punch and Judy politics isn’t a substitute for an actual answer.

    Attacking the questioner for simply asking a question is cheap politics. Voters can see through that

    All this noise and fury from you prompted by a simple question about parks. Which isn’t even directed at you. Bizarre.

    I can tell you are the type to want the last word. So go ahead I’m going to get on with some real work now.

    Good Night.

    • September 14, 2010 4:11 am

      well Darren (aka turningbristolred) it’s midnight in Washington DC and I’m checking my Facebook account and blog. I’m sorry if the combination of a time zone difference and a busy schedule on a visit with Labour and Tory MPs has prevented me from giving a fast response to your posting. I’ll be on the next plane just for you…

      There are some lines you really shouldn’t cross. Belittling my staff in a public forum is one of them. There are many people I like and respect in your party. I have no time for personalised and vindictive abuse in politics. You obviously have a different approach. I think the people of Bristol expect better.

      • September 14, 2010 5:48 am

        I think people in Bristol do expect better.

        I think people in Bristol probably expect you to answer the question on parks.

        The posts from the 3 of you play the man not the ball.

        For the record Bristol West has a vibrant social media community. They’re used to celebritities, businesses, charities and politicians using blogs, Facebook and Twitter to engage and debate with them. Politicians only able to “broadcast” information have failed to evolve and like all things that fail to evolve they are replaced on the evolutionary ladder.

        What does it say about the strength of your values, or Alex’s or Jon’s that you can’t engage in real public discourse and answer a simple question? What does it say about your view of the people that you won’t answer their questions unless they are couched in platitudes?

  4. Cllr Jon Rogers permalink
    September 14, 2010 7:49 am

    Darren, you are a Labour lawyer and you enjoy twisting words and phrases, mixed with partisan rhetorical questions. You are rude and offensive to political opponents, particularly on Twitter, then exhibit false outrage when challenged.

    You are the only person I have ever blocked on Twitter, an action which you widely and repeatedly ascribe to me “not answering a simple question”. I answered the question repeatedly, but not how you wanted it answered. You got rude so I blocked you.

    I work a lot with Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat politicians. I treat them with respect and generally that works both ways. We don’t always agree on policy, and we all enjoy exploring those differences in an adult way. That is how we learn and grow.

    Bristol is a great city. Being a councillor is a real privilege. Working constructively with others bears fruit.

    • Alex Woodman permalink
      September 14, 2010 9:05 am

      Well said Jon. Darren knows full well that this has nothing to do with answering a question about parks, and everything to do with the offensive and obnoxious way he attacks others on Twitter, etc.

      He frequently twists and misrepresents comments made by other people, and then when challenged resorts to allegations along the lines of “you can’t engage in proper discourse” or “you aren’t willing to debate the issues”. I’m sure that most people would agree that bitter and sniping insults are not ‘debate’, but are instead immature attempts at cheap political point-scoring.

      Like Jon, I work with politicians from all parties, and agree that there is a lot of mutual respect, where we deal with differences in a mature way. It’s a shame that Darren still thinks that the best way to win the argument is to simply be rude to people.

      • ddom2006 permalink
        September 14, 2010 12:49 pm

        So the figures are from 2008? We can both agree that they can’t really be used to ratify a point from either perspective then surely.

      • August 27, 2011 6:47 am

        Articles like this really grease the shafts of knodwlgee.

    • September 14, 2010 9:59 am

      If you think I joined the Labour Party to work constructively with a Lib Dem cabinet in selling off working people’s parks, axing their bus services or cutting meals on wheels then you are a very poor judge of character.

      I’ll work with Lib Dem Cllrs who wish to oppose such cuts.

      Your caricature of me as some combative partisan ogre is amusing but inaccurate. I’ve worked well across party boundaries. Just ask Cllrs. Wright & Hance about the hours worth of detailed free advice I gave all members of the HR Committee in order to avoid a lot of trouble and cost.

      Or the progressive coalition I built including Labour, Lib Dems and Greens in opposing Cllr. Eddy’s attach on Educational Action Challenging Homophobia- an act your leader Cllr Janke kindly came and personally thanked me for.

      Or the fact that I am currently working with Cllr. Quartely my Conservative opponent in the last election in order to defeat your plans to sell off Kings Head Lane Park.

      In the past Labour Cllrs worked with you to further a Labour Government’s investment and policies in this city. You will find few, if any, willing to help you implement these ideological cuts.

      What is more I’m proud to be just a small part of a new cohort of younger Labour activists and candidates who will challenge you on your failings and shortcomings. In fact I’ve been asked to help train people up; so expect a rougher ride in the future because given your lock step with Mr Cameron and Clegg you deserve it.

      For those who are interested in how Lib Dem Cllrs respond to scrutiny take the time to read this:

      I upset Jon on Twitter by asking him to identify how much he planned to spend on consultants to cut our health and social services. He ignored the question. I asked again. He ignored the question. I asked again. He said it was commercially sensitive. I asked for a ball park figure or what we had been spent historically (because his Dept surely knows that). He ignored the question but mentioned he looked at other Councils who had used consultants. I asked him if he could publicise the other Council’s sums and then he declared he was ‘not my private investigator” he then blocked me on Twitter. Very odd almost behaviour for an elected politician.

      I upset Alex Woodman by publicising the fact that the excellent bookseller in the market (which falls in his ward) was being pushed out of business by an onerous but unnecessary rule. He wrote to Alex but Alex wasn’t communicating with him just the market manager. I raised the issue, badgered Alex, described his non engagement and pubicised a petition. Within days Alex met him and the rule (last I checked) was suspended.

      They call that rude. I call it a job well done. People can make their own minds up.

      Ultimately all I’ve done now is ask Stephen’s opinion on park sell offs. I want to see if you agrees with it or not. We’ll see if he answers.

      I’m not outraged by either of you. Just surprised that in the 2010s you can’t engage online – normal people don’t get outraged by Lib Dem Councillors not answering a question. In fact they’re coming to expect it.

      S0 perhaps Jon I could ask you and Alex to stop ganging up on me and let me get on with my job and you can get on with yours? Haven’t you got a savage cuts agenda to try and get through?

      Best wishes

  5. Sara Fox permalink
    September 14, 2010 9:42 am

    Oh please. The indignation about Mr Williams and his response time. I sent him an email and waited 6 weeks for a reply! When I eventually did get a response, which did not answer my question, I commented that this was a bit longer than what I was used to, was told by one of his assistants that Mr Williams had, ‘a lot of constituents..’ And there was me thinking I was the only one.

    Look, it does not take 6 weeks to reply to an email. Kerry McCarthy (previous MP) managed to answer letters and emails quite quickly, and in the meantime was actively working on the situation.

    And by the way, I am not a Labor voter, so please don’t try and say this is party political.

    Just that an MP isn’t really doing a great job if it takes that long to send a reply to a fairly simple query. Who was it that said the effectiveness of an MP is their ability to deal with every day constituents?

    • Alex Woodman (Constituency Office Staff) permalink
      September 14, 2010 9:59 am

      I’m sorry Sara that you didn’t get a reply as quickly as you would like. However, the difference between Stephen and Kerry McCarthy is that Stephen receives a much, much greater amount of correspondence. If you have a look at the figures from WriteToThem ( you’ll see that Stephen is one of the most written-to MPs out of all 650. And that’s just e-mails sent via WriteToThem – it doesn’t include the e-mails, letters, telephone calls etc which come directly!

      I don’t know what your query related to, though if it was a matter of national policy, Stephen will have raised it with the appropriate Minister before sending a reply, which might have been the cause of the delay. I am also sorry that the response didn’t answer your question. I’m happy to investigate further if you wish – if so, please e-mail me at with more details about when your message was sent, what it said, and the reply you received.

      Finally, you’re quite right that responding to constituents’ correspondence is an important part of an MPs’ job. However, speed is not the sole measure of effectiveness. If you have a look at Stephen’s profile at TheWorkForYou ( you’ll see that he has spoken in an above-average number of debates, asked an above-average number of questions and attended an above-average number of votes. In addition, as above, he holds a four-hour surgery every Friday (longer and more frequent that most MPs) and spends an incredible amount of time out and about meeting constituents and visiting schools, community groups etc…

      • ddom2006 permalink
        September 14, 2010 12:10 pm

        @ Alex Woodman:

        I’m aware the Libs are cosying up to the Tories, but I wasn’t aware you were endorsing the Coulson-esk phone tapping style of politics.

        How else could you possibly know how much correspondence Kerry deals with without making ridiculously unfounded and untrue accusations, which I presume that you wouldn’t wish to do?

      • Alex Woodman (Constituency Office Staff) permalink
        September 14, 2010 12:25 pm

        I repeat:

        It’s only a rough indicator, but I think it gives a good indication of the level of correspondence sent to each MP.

      • ddom2006 permalink
        September 14, 2010 12:31 pm

        A very very rough indicator. For one it doesn’t cover the tweets Kerry recieves and responds to daily, not blog comments. It’s a very archaic way of going about calculating corrospondence.

        I also note Stephen has one of the lowest reply rates if we’re using that graph as fact. When considering he doesn’t use the full range of communication that Kerry does, surely that’s even more concerning?

      • Alex Woodman (Constituency Office Staff) permalink
        September 14, 2010 12:36 pm

        The most recent figures from WriteToThem are from 2008. Around that time Stephen had high level of staff turnover, and response rates did suffer as a result. However, the situation has improved considerably since then.

      • ddom2006 permalink
        September 14, 2010 12:51 pm

        Apologies, I replied in the wrong place initially:

        So the figures are from 2008? We can both agree that they can’t really be used to ratify a point from either perspective then surely.

      • Alex Woodman (Constituency Office Staff) permalink
        September 14, 2010 12:59 pm

        You’ll notice that historical figures – 2005, 2006, 2007 – are also available, which show a clear trend. I also know (from her staff) that a lot of Kerry’s correspondence came from Easton and Lawrence Hill – wards that are now in Bristol West!

      • ddom2006 permalink
        September 14, 2010 1:23 pm

        Again, you’re ignoring the other levels of correspondence both MPs receive. Our society has shifted quite drastically onwards from posting letters in recent years. Of course, if Mr Williams was more open towards other levels of media, he may find he can answer his correspondence a lot more efficiently than you yourself claim he is able to currently.

  6. Ann Patey permalink
    September 14, 2010 10:02 am

    The county of Avon was created for political ends and S GLOS ran us much better. Please don’t bring Avon back.

    On the subject of replies from politicians – I have never, ever had a response which answers my question from any of them including local politicians right up to PMs office. Their responses usually include a self congratulatory pat on the back as if to say I have misjudged them and the party motives. Can they blame us for not respecting them when they neatly sidestep any issues that pouts them on the spot?

  7. Art of the Possible permalink
    September 14, 2010 10:19 am

    “On the subject of replies from politicians – I have never, ever had a response which answers my question from any of them including local politicians right up to PMs office. Their responses usually include a self congratulatory pat on the back as if to say I have misjudged them and the party motives. Can they blame us for not respecting them when they neatly sidestep any issues that puts them on the spot?”

    Well said Ann.

    However, this thread has at least given great entertainment value!

  8. Stokes Crofter permalink
    September 14, 2010 2:13 pm

    I am still none the wiser as to whether Stephen supports, or not, the sell-off of Council green space.

    • September 16, 2010 4:13 am

      simple answer:
      1 This is a matter for Bristol City Council and the councillors, not Parliament and MPs.
      2 I believe that none of the areas concerned are in Bristol West so even if you think this is for MPs to decide – then it’s for the others, not me.

      But it is clearly sensible for the Council to review its land holdings and to consult on future use.

  9. Roderick Leslie permalink
    September 20, 2010 10:13 am

    Wow ! All of you try reading back through this thread and you might realise something I’ve been concerned about for a long time – and am thoroughly fed up with – which is how all this squabbling leaves a wonderful city like Bristol so badly served by its public sector leadership. Whilst the private sector thrives there is just endless dithering over vital issues like transport. Try thinking about leadership first and party squabbling second.

    I do think Stephen has a point about local Government organisation (lets forget the dreaded Avon for a moment !) Having lived in the centre and worked on the increasingly overcrowded UWE/ HP/ MOD business estates in the north one has all too much time to reflect on the problems of split transport responsibilities – it is increasingly clear that a proper, sustainable public transport system is the oil the whole region needs to keep it moving in the future.

  10. John Waldron permalink
    September 20, 2010 11:34 am

    Roderick Leslie has put his finger on a really important issue.
    This new blog site, which one assumes was intended for debate on issues that affect constituents, seems to have immediately been turned into a forum for point scoring by the political classes.
    Given the creative, intellectual and technical resources of its people and its unique location it is shaming that Bristol has consistently failed to fulfil its potential, whether in transport, planning or education. Our politicians must accept the largest part of the responsibility for this.
    The coalition are falling into the same trap as the Labour Government by looking at changing structures (in education and health, for example) rather than looking at practice on the ground and at changing attitudes and cultures. By all means set up a long overdue regional transport Authority but don’t expect this deal with the ‘jobsworth’ attitudes and the political dogmatism that beset much of the public sector.

    • September 23, 2010 8:20 pm

      Good points John. Yes, my blog is meant to be a forum where I can put forward my views on a range of topics and answer any points from Bristol West constituents or people from around the blogosphere, if they make a constructive contribution. It’s not meant to be an opportunity for Labour activists to hurl abuse at me or my Lib Dem colleagues in Westminster and Bristol.

      • September 23, 2010 11:09 pm

        I’m sorry but this is nonsense.

        I have not posted abuse about anyone on this blog. Nor has any other Labour activist. To suggest otherwise is just plain silly. To suggest asking a question is abuse is equally plain silly.

        We asked Stephen Williams what his opinion is. Two Lib Dem Councillors weighed in.

        I’m not sure why Bristol Lib Dems can’t debate without calling foul every 5 minutes.

  11. John Waldron permalink
    September 23, 2010 11:45 pm

    Well, one person’s abuse is another’s constructive comment – a plague on all your houses! Actually I was more interested in the issue of local government structures than the Lib-Lab feud (after all you may yet become bed-fellows one day!) On the issue at hand (local government re-organisation), the Coalition runs the risk, as it does in other areas, of dismantling existing structures without fully understanding what it is that actually produces good local services. In other parts of Europe these are better, not because of the structures but because there is a culture of of excellence and service. (This is, for instance, patently true in schools where the Government seems more interested in dogma than evidence from surveys in both the UK and abroad.)

    • Art of the Possible permalink
      September 26, 2010 5:19 pm

      “In other parts of Europe these are better … because there is a culture of of excellence and service.”

      Oh dear, John. Any understanding or belief in public servive in this country died a long time ago.

      In our class-obsessed society the middle classes and the working classes are too busy trying to get their own back on each other. The managers are too busy in-fighting and empire building, each using their own staff as pawns to get at the other. Apart from that, all anybody thinks about is money money money, getting and spending, and children are being trained to believe that the only worthwhile life is that of the celeb, earning millions of pounds and living the luxury lifestyle that is constantly publicised. No wonder that hardly anyone takes a pride in a good job well done, no matter how humble. You’d just be laughed at if you did.

      • September 26, 2010 5:29 pm

        well Mr or Ms Art of the possible, one of the pleasanter parts of my role is to meet many people who work in different parts of the public sector. Many take a pride in their work and make a real difference to other people. I also meet lots of school children and their teachers and am often struck by the level of awareness and care that they have for their fellow citizens. It’s a good job some of us in politics are glass half full people… :-))

      • Art of the Possible permalink
        September 26, 2010 6:35 pm

        Well that’s how it may look to you nearer the top of the pile Mr Williams, but I can assure you that things don’t look anything like so rosy from the bottom.

  12. John Waldron permalink
    September 26, 2010 6:21 pm

    “….Many take a pride in their work and make a real difference to other people….”
    Quite agree. Taking schools as an example: teachers should be empowered by more respect for their professionalism, with fewer irrelevant organisational changes to existing structures, such as Free Schools, and the removal of the tyranny of OFSTED.
    In any event the debate about the boundaries of local authority will be irrelevant if their functions are usurped by agencies that are only accountable to central government. As the party of local activism isn’t this where Lib Dems must draw a line in the sand?

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