Devolution and a metro Mayor for the West of England: we’re told this is the only game in town – but if we play who will be the winners and losers?
Greens have mixed views on the west of England devolution deal. As our council Group Leader Charlie Bolton said at council recently: “Beware of Tories bearing gifts.” But what are the issues we’re concerned about?
Greens are clearly committed to devolving power from government.
In the most centralised developed country in Europe the fact the government controls so many aspects of local expenditure and holds onto most powers taken for granted by Mayors and cities in our neighbouring countries means some devolution is likely to be a good thing.
We’re desperate for powers over transport that allow us to tackle years of inaction, congestion, lethal pollution and damage. But devolving powers and budgets can also mean devolving cuts, if adequate resources are not made available. Following years of austerity, designed to reduce the size of the public sector, we’re naturally suspicious of the former chancellor’s recent desire to press devolution onto so many areas of local government, with a ‘take it or leave it’ model linked to a new, elected metro Mayor for the region. With funding linked to business rates and local charges in future there’s also potential for a shortfall if income growth drops.
We’ve also had many concerns about the model being adopted for governance. The idea a new metro mayor sits with 3 council Leaders (excluding the one from North Somerset, now) and together they decide all the major investment decisions for transport, economic development and housing, plus skills, across the West of England raises a good few concerns about accountability, scrutiny and governance. What about a cabinet based on proportional representation, to take account of all the views in the area? Some areas outside Bristol worry about the bigger city ‘taking over’ but frankly the arithmetic of voting makes it possible the suburbs and commuter belt could be in charge – those who up to now have been noticeably unwilling to fund the range of public services and facilities provided by the city they live next to. Our decades of transport problems stem in a large part from the unwillingness of the group of councils to take difficult investment and collaboration decisions even when there was scope to work together (think the infamous tram route debacle).
Local policies or government direction?
And finally what about the policies our councils are signed up to? The former Chancellor made clear he was creating this arrangement to “drive growth” – pushing the endless, infinite economic growth model that fails to recognise limited capacity of the planet to provide resources for ever, absorb lethal pollutants or deal with climate change emissions. The same push for growth that has failed to deliver a fair share of its benefits to so many people across our city, exacerbating inequalities and pricing people out of their neighbourhoods. Building more houses and attracting more jobs is a good thing, but what if we get a Metro Mayor who is only funded if they focus on these two things alone, in isolation of other measures of wellbeing? ”
Yet we’re in a city that recognises the need for economic development to be shared among the whole city and for environmental constraints and the protection of well being to be built into decisions. That’s why Greens have pushed for tackling inequality and protecting the environment to be added to the core goals of the proposed metro Mayor. We’re glad to say Bristol’s Mayor has now agreed with us, and spoke of the need for ‘good growth’ to be pursued. And at the last Full Council (in July) Labour agreed to a Green amendment to be added making tackling inequality and protecting the environment a feature of the motion our council adopted as part of its support for the deal that has been consulted. Our Green colleagues in B&NES asked for a similar amendment. Major decisions really do need to be kept in balance with the ability of the region to manage the extra activity without destroying the assets we all rely on.
Meanwhile most politicians seem to have adopted a take it but hold your nose approach – start as the government sets it, but see how far the deal can be extended in future, with our sights firmly on the future. We’ll be looking for ways we can use it to take more local control of budgets and services currently off limits to the region, and for powers to be devolved from government (not taken from the councils) to incorporate more comprehensive functions that let us manage the city region in a more coherent, sustainable way.
The consultation here WoE consultation is about to end – on August 15th