Many people in Bristol will be thrilled to see that a devolution deal worth £1bn has been granted by George Osborne’s treasury to create a combined authority between Bristol, South Gloucestershire, North Somerset and Bath & North East Somerset – the West of England authorities.
This does not quite return us to the halcyon days (!) of the Avon authority, but does cement regional working into our local government structures, and provides an additional forum for transport, housing and education & skills to be decided upon. All good, you say? Wrong, I say.
The context that local government works in is that set by successive Coalition (2010-2015) and Tory (2015-) central governments – to cut back the local state and to let people who are the most vulnerable in society fend for themselves, rather than provide them with public services. It is ideologically driven and immensely damaging to communities and individuals. The £30m per year over the next 30 years being offered is not – fairly obviously – a higher amount than that being taken away by the government from the main government grant to local authorities.
The UK is one of the most centralised states in the Global North. We desperately need decentralisation and localisation of powers and money to local authorities to deliver key public services, to invest in and improve our transport and housing infrastructure and to rebuild the damage already done by the Tories (and Lib Dems). So why am I being such a curmudgeon about this new deal?
The bind that the Tories place on local councillors when considering whether to support this deal is that – regardless of the exact specifics of governance or investment priorities – none of us want to vote against investment in our area. But then we don’t really get a choice – it’s this or nothing, and nothing is less appealing when you have a potential £1bn on offer. The method chosen by the Tories – something called Payment By Results – is a new form of financing that makes payments contingent on the independent verification of results. So firstly, let’s not get too hung up on the figures – it still all depends on us and what we can achieve. I have a lot of faith in Bristol’s workforce and the economy in general – it’s the strongest in England outside of London – but I am struggling to have faith that George Osborne’s motives are pure.
And there lies the rub. The Tories want more power, but they are consistently stymied by local government in all of the major cities, where people a) tend to vote for Labour administrations and b) are not easily controllable even if they don’t. Mayors – of any kind – are a delight to Osborne, Greg Clark and government centralisers who like to dress themselves up as localists. Mayors give them one person to deal with, rather than a revolving door of council leaders (who are inducted and cast out by the whims of – heaven forfend! – the local electorate). Never mind that nine out of the ten core cities rejected the idea in democratic votes in May 2012. “Let’s try something else!”
Metro Mayors are even better for the Tories because: a) they can get around the little Labour problem by making the area wider and – in nearly every case – vastly increasing the chances of a Tory being elected and b) they don’t have to engage with specific local authorities any more, just one person, covering a vast geographical area. It truly is a centralist’s charter, and it’s a wonder that it didn’t happen the last time the Tories were in in the 1980s.
Which leads me onto my next, and I think most pertinent point. What do devolution, decentralisation, localism, localisation or any other buzz word actually mean to the person in the street? Surely, if we are being honest with ourselves, they mean that the local communities in question actually get more of a say in how they are governed?
For the West of England, the extent of public scrutiny that our new governance arrangements are being held to is whatever political parties in the city (who have slightly more access than the general public) can glean from one specific, unelected individual who is working on the governance arrangements. In other words, there is no public scrutiny of the process. The Green group has tried our absolute hardest to dredge up any information, but it is like drawing blood from a stone. The Mayor and council leaders have not given us any information, again under the guise that it might jeopardise the whole deal.
All of the negotiations over this deal have been held behind closed doors, and councillors in each of the four authorities in question will be asked to sign up to them without ANY formal public scrutiny whatsoever occurring before a Full Council debate in June or July 2016. Then, in 2017, we will all be expected to vote for an all-powerful sub-regional mayor – without so much as a word of consultation being entered into. This new Metro Mayor will have a small cabinet of the Combined Authority’s council leaders/mayors (yes, Bristol will have THREE Mayors if this goes through: Lord Mayor, City Mayor and Metro Mayor). We are told that “the West of England Combined Authority, including the Mayor, will be scrutinised and held to account by the West of England Overview and Scrutiny and Audit committee(s).” We have yet to hear how this Overview and Scrutiny and Audit committee will be composed or how it will function, but past experience of regional scrutiny working has not been positive or effective.
If the government was serious about this devolution deal and the buy-in of local authorities and the communities they serve, they would offer a referendum on it on the same day as the referendum on the European Union. Why not?
In conclusion, we’ll take the money – we have little choice, and we could do with it as a result of the Tories’ very own assault on local government. But will we let the diminishing power of local people and councillors to influence key strategic decisions go without a fight? Never.
Rob Telford is a Green Party councillor in Bristol and a member of the Electoral Reform Society council. This piece is written in a personal capacity.