Should Bristol and Bath have a Metro Mayor?
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.
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. The consultation is here http://www.westofenglanddevolution.co.uk/
Here is the government document on the new Mayor and Combined Authority: