For a very long time Bristol and its surrounding conurbation has been a lightweight. It has kept itself out of view and sight and seemingly lacked much ambition. But the referendum for a mayor for Bristol in 2012 began an awakening. An awakening to just what might be possible.
Now our current government is resolved to devolve some strategic powers away from Whitehall and Westminster. These plans are still not bold enough but they are what is on offer and they should be embraced with enthusiasm.
Those of us who campaigned in the Bristol referendum always knew that what we really needed was a Metro Mayor and as George Ferguson has not hesitated to tell us in recent months, the mayor of Bristol does not have the necessary powers needed to introduce a coherent transport policy and to attract business and industry to our area. Professor Robin Hambleton, the distinguished academic from UWE, argued so in 2012 as did The Economist newspaper.
This time around we don’t have a spectre of a referendum on devolution. We can anticipate that government will get on with the business of governing in contrast to its ridiculous decision to hold a referendum on our membership of the EU. The profound distraction of the Euro referendum has already caused much harm and partly paralysed the business of running our country.
It is evident that there will be much opposition from councillors in South Gloucestershire and North Somerset to any change to local government. There are dark warnings about the return of the ill-fated metropolitan county of Avon. The British given the chance to change anything almost always vote against it, the latest example being in Bath, where the public voted against having their own mayor, in spite of the obvious success in Bristol. So this kind of change must be pushed through from Westminster. This will bring howls of anguish that it is not democratic. But Britain has a representative democracy and it was only last May that we elected this government.
We can tangle ourselves in detail asking precisely what the new Metro Mayor will be able to do and the exact administrative structure. Similar claims in 2012 that a Bristol mayor would increase administrative costs by £1 million were completely unfounded.
But the immediate prospect is of £1 billion being devolved to us. One billion that can be used to meet locally determined needs. It is of great importance that strategic transport planning and building will be part of the deal. Our bus, rail and road systems need to be joined up. The boundaries are so artificial. When it comes to “park and ride” it is ludicrous to regard Filton and Kingswood as not being Bristol.
The West of England Devolution agreement, sets out the terms signed off by the Bristol Mayor and other Council Leaders in the West of England. It devolves a local transport budget, the ability to franchise bus services, gives responsibility for a so-called Key Route of local authority roads and powers over strategic planning. It also covers adult education and skills and the power to develop its own economic growth. These are bold and distinctive measures.
Seemingly the Conservative leadership in the outer areas of the new metropolitan area are afraid that somehow the city of Bristol will start to control their destiny. This is an odd argument in part because while it is unlikely there could be a Conservative mayor of Bristol a Conservative Metro Mayor is far from improbable. A leading Green councillor in Bristol expresses his mistrust of a Tory Government and thinks it wrong to make such changes without a referendum. But I think what is really going on here is that politicians are afraid of losing power for themselves. They dress up this fear as a loss of local democracy. More accurately their interests are sometimes self-serving and linked to petty party tribalism.
The West of England Devolution agreement is subject to formal ratification by the four constituent councils. This will not come easily if the strongest pressures on them are not imposed and they will certainly need to be if we are to have our first election in May of 2017. People like Elfan ap Rees, the deputy leader of North Somerset, can expect the severest of arm twisting from London.
The business community doesn’t have the same doubts as the politicians. They want a joined up infrastructure and care little about the protection of artificial local government boundaries. They ache for a sense of direction.
Professor Hambleton has long argued that Metro Mayors have worked well in other countries and he worried that our existing mayoral system would lead mayors to be comparatively featherweight. His words and those of other experts like Benjamin Barber, the American author of “If Mayors Ruled the World” who says city mayors are responding to transnational problems more effectively than nation states, have been heeded by George Osborne.
Democracy is alive and well and with eager anticipation I shall cast my vote for the first Metro Mayor for the West of England on the first opportunity presented to me.
The Bristol Post has said that this proposal is already dead in the water. I think not.
Stephen Perry was one of the founders of Independents for Bristol and a leading figure in the Mayor for Bristol referendum campaign.