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'A watershed moment for local authorities'

1st March 2017 was an historic day in the West of England – one which the leader of South Gloucestershire Council, Cllr Matthew Riddle, called a "watershed moment" - but, the chances are, for the majority of us, it went unnoticed.

It was the first meeting of the new West of England Combined Authority, or WECA, which has been created by three of our local authorities: Bath & North East Somerset, Bristol and South Gloucestershire. It is tasked with delivering the £900m devolution deal negotiated with government. This additional government investment, combined with greater powers over things like housing, transport and skills, will have a significant impact on the million or so people that live and work here.

I’ve been privileged enough to see some of the early work that’s been done by officers from the three councils. They have worked tirelessly, along with the leaders of the three councils, to secure the best devolution deal the government was willing to give, and then create the combined authority on as thin-a-shoestring as possible to deliver it.

The first session was a good reflection of their work - a carefully executed affair that went without a hitch. More a whisper than a bang perhaps, but stage one is now successfully completed.

Stage two, on the other hand, still has a long way to go. In just over two months’ time, local residents will be asked to vote for a new Metro Mayor to preside over this new authority.

Most people have little knowledge about, or interest in, the election or the new combined authority. In the last couple of years, Bristol’s electorate have had to cast their vote in five sets of elections; three in BANES and South Gloucestershire. Voter fatigue has set in – so what can the WECA and the Mayoral candidates that are beginning to emerge do to rouse the electorate off their sofas and into the polling stations on May 4th? 

1.     Paint a big picture

There is a risk that what local people see is another layer of bureaucracy and another political leader. (Never mind the fact that in Bristol, there will soon be a Lord Mayor, a City Mayor and a Metro Mayor to get our heads around.)

We need a clear set of messages that spell out both the immediate benefits and the future opportunities on offer. This first deal means our local leaders - rather than politicians in Westminster - get to take control over things like what new infrastructure to fund, and how best to support skills in the region.

This is just the start. Look at Manchester: subsequent devolution deals means they are now in charge of their health and social care budget, and the criminal justice system. They seem determined to take full control over their £22bn funds. If the West of England is able to successfully deliver our first devolution deal, we could also be in a position of asking the government to hand over further funding and powers.

2. Touch a nerve

Get some public debates going on the key issues in the region. E.g. the shortage of affordable housing, skills shortages, congestion and sustainability. We’re all affected by them. The Mayoral candidates that have so far come forward all have their own take on how to tackle these things, and it’s important the public has the chance to hear and challenge them. 

I also think some of these debates should be online, to reach beyond the usual suspects, and even screened in schools and colleges. After all, it’s younger people who are most likely to be affected by these ever-growing issues.

3. Ditch the blame game

This is a plea to the candidates really. We are all bored of political parties pointing the finger and blaming each other for everything. At the end of the day, we all want the same thing: economic prosperity, good job opportunities, houses we can afford. The key to success for the new Metro Mayor will be in his or her ability to work in partnership with the other leaders in the region.

So, rather than using this as another excuse to have a pop at the opposition, tell us how you’re going to work with others to maximise the opportunity we now have.

4. The great name debate

I know there is lots of work being done on this already and I don’t underestimate how tricky it is, but it’s time we settled once and for all on a better name for the region. The West of England is fine for administrative purposes, but it doesn’t inspire. Whilst you’re painting us this picture that devolution will bring of a prosperous region full of opportunities for everyone, it’s the perfect moment to give us our own Northern Powerhouse or Midlands Engine.

We are already more successful economically than both of those areas, and yet we are still somewhat lacking in identity. Now is the time for the region’s leaders to really show us that they’ve come together by agreeing a compelling name for the region, so that we can all be proud to call it home.