Councillors in Bath and North East Somerset have called upon the government to drop the requirement to have an elected regional mayor as part of a £1 billion devolution package for the West of England area.
Councillors debated the devolution proposals at a Full Council meeting last night -Thursday, 12th May.
During the debate, Conservative councillors tabled a motion welcoming the additional funding and powers that would come with the devolution package, but called upon the government to drop the requirement to have an elected mayor overseeing the devolved arrangements.
Instead, the Conservative proposal called for a continuation of the existing arrangements, whereby Chairman is chosen from among the representatives of the four councils in the West of England area.
The Conservative motion was passed with near unanimous support, meaning the Council will now go back to Government to seek further discussions over governance arrangements for the devolution proposals.
Chairman of the B&NES Conservative Group Councillor Paul Myers, who put forward the proposal at the Council meeting, said:
“The principle of handing greater decision-making powers down from Westminster to the local area is something which I think is broadly welcomed across the Council. Alongside the £1 billion worth of investment on offer from government, this could allow our area to invest in long-overdue improvements to local infrastructure such as roads, rail, broadband and buses.
“However, concerns still remain over some of the governance arrangements, particularly the idea of having an elected mayor for the West of England.
“Our motion therefore calls on the government to drop the requirement to have an elected mayor from the devolution agreement, and asks that the Council continue discussions on this basis in the coming weeks.”
Leader of B&NES Council Cllr Tim Warren (Cons) commented:
“The funding package we have negotiated with government represents the best financial deal of any devolution agreement in the country, and would also secure greater powers for the West of England over issues such as public transport and skills training.
“To date, the Government has made it clear that it sees the creation of an elected mayor as an integral part of this deal, working alongside the councils to oversee the devolved arrangements. However, we have been clear from the start that this is not our preferred model of governance, and I am happy to go back to government and hold further discussions, highlighting the strength of feeling there is amongst local councillors about the mayoral aspect of the deal.”
The outcome of these discussions with government will be reported back to councillors by the time a final decision has to be taken over whether or not to accept the devolution package in late June. If the Council decides to go ahead with the devolution deal, a public consultation will take place prior to any new arrangements being signed-off by the Secretary of State.
What’s all this about devolution? Well it’s all part of a political mantra to promote the transfer of powers and funding by central government to local government and give regions greater control over matters such as transport, housing, and planning as well as the tools and finance to grow local economies.
So far eight ‘deals’ have been done and dusted around the country – from Cornwall to Liverpool – and now Bristol, B&NES, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire are being asked to sign up to a regional deal that could unlock 1 billion pounds worth of investment.
The annual meeting of the Council was reacting to a report on the “West of England Devolution Agreement” from which I quote:
“The work to develop the devolution deal has built upon the existing, successful joint working arrangements in the West of England.
This work had already seen the four councils secure more than £700m for the area during the last five years through the Local Growth Deal (£230m) and City Deal (£500m over 25 years); this funding has supported large scale projects in B&NES including Bath City Riverside.
And please read on …
” The West of England is the only region (outside of London) that has demonstrated above average productivity and economic growth (over the past 15 years).
In recent times a number of issues have been identified by the local authorities of the West of England as needing to be addressed, including productivity, skills shortages, housing availability and affordability, deprivation and issues with skills attainment, and levels of traffic congestion which are amongst the highest in the UK.”
The report says existing Government investment is significant but “does not meet all the requirements to invest over the next 10 years if the West of England is to continue to attract high-value investors and employers.
The West of England devolution deal has the potential to help the area deliver more ambitious projects by providing greater certainty over future income streams and greater local flexibility over how this investment will be spent.”
The report tells councillors that the deal “would also devolve significant powers to the region, including decisions about transport, investment, funding, skills training, business support, housing and strategic planning.
The new powers will ensure that local people benefit from economic growth and that the area has a skilled workforce that meets the needs of business.”
They will also be reassured that: “The proposed devolution deal does not impact upon any powers or responsibilities currently exercised by Bath and North East Somerset Council. The autonomy of each constituent Council would be maintained and protected, including protection of Council assets.
Any transfer to the Combined Authority of existing powers or resources currently held by the constituent authorities must be by agreement with the relevant authorities.
But here’s the bit where we come into the democratic process:
“The deal sets out how the investment and new powers would be overseen by the leaders of the four councils, plus a West of England Mayor elected by the public. This will be through what is referred to as a ‘combined authority’.
The details of the governance scheme are being worked up by legal officers within the West of England, and will be presented to Full Council. The governance scheme will ensure that no single council can monopolise decision making.”
But what happens next?
” Now that a deal has been negotiated with Government, the four councils must decide whether they wish to support it or not by 4 July 2016.
If the deal goes forward, there would be a period of consultation with the public on the technical details of the deal, including governance arrangements, on behalf of the Secretary of State. This would be an opportunity for the public to express their views to Government.
In October 2016 an order would be laid in Parliament to approve the proposed deal. If all other stages have been completed, an election for the West of England Mayor would take place in May 2017.”
Decision day for acceptance or rejection by B&NES is June 29th. Let’s see where some future government lobbying gets us. The problem seems to be the idea of an elected Mayor is written into the legislation. Will government make an exception for our four unitary authorities.