West of England councils take control in Devolution deal but what next?

30 June 2016, Blog

In the early hours of 24 June 2016, history was made with the EU referendum result that stunned a continent. It was one of those times when people may always remember where they were or what they were doing on the day of the result; something akin to a JFK or Princess Diana moment.

Perhaps the same won’t be said of the ‘Yes’ votes cast by B&NES, Bristol and South Gloucestershire Council’s for the devolution deal offered by the Government. But the impact for the 900,000 or so citizens is likely to be profound.

Greater government investment – some £30 million a year for 30 years – combined with greater powers, such as bus franchising and housing, is now agreed. The West of England is one of the most economically productive of the UK city regions. We’re already a success story in the making. The next chapter starts here.

What can we expect to witness over the coming years? And how does the West of England fit into the devolution agenda?

First, the government’s negotiations with Council’s across the country appear to reward those committed to an elected mayor. The West of England is no exception and, like other regions, has a ballot for its first regional elected mayor pencilled in for May 2017. Voters will face yet another important choice.

In two years, Bristol’s electorate have already cast their vote in five sets of elections; in B&NES and South Gloucestershire, it’s three. All of our councils face a challenge to raise awareness and understanding about the role of a Metro Mayor and the powers at their disposal to avoid the impact of voter fatigue and boost turnout. Expect to see robust campaigning once the political parties select their candidates.

Second, whoever is elected will not have free reign to do as they please. LGiU – a local democracy think tank – believes that: “Mayors will be accountable upwards to the government and downwards to citizens and stakeholders.” So expect a system of accountability where the Metro Mayor works closely with the leaders of the three councils, with joint decision-making in certain areas, combined with rigorous scrutiny arrangements from committees of experienced councillors. The exact checks and balances will be designed to ensure that Avon County Council doesn’t return in all but name.

Third, the current devolution agreement may not be the end point for the West of England. In Manchester, for example, the government has agreed that the region will control its entire £6 billion health and social care budget. Since the spring, some 38 organisations became involved to oversee decision-making that the government hopes will save cash and improve services.

In March, the government announced more powers for Manchester; this time the criminal justice system. It seems that Manchester’s end game is control over every penny of the £22 billion public funds that the region receives.

As one would expect, Manchester will need to earn such fiscal autonomy. Their original devolution deal unveiled in 2014 bore some resemblance to the West of England’s, revolving around policy areas such as skills and transport. If the West of England devolution deal proves a success, the direction of travel for the government could be to hand over further powers and finance to the Metro Mayor.

Indeed, our own devolution agreement contains the phrase, “Further powers may be agreed over time and included in future legislation.” Soundings are already being taken by local leaders on policy areas such as energy, health and social care.

The 29 June 2016 may not get marked on many people’s calendars as a ‘where I was’ event. But within the context of our governance and aspirations for continued economic regeneration, it deserves a footnote in history. It’s a day when West of England politicians really did take control and start to shape the destiny of our communities for generations to come.

 

By James Hinchcliffe, Senior Account Director, JBP Associates ​

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