Our council correspondent, Sid Ryan, has been digging into the billion pound ‘devolution deal’ on its way to Bristol in the coming weeks.
Photo: Mat A (de-mystify.co.uk/pics)
What a clever, clever trap the government has laid for Bristol. The council are still getting back up to speed after the elections ground everything to a halt, but Westminster never stops plotting and have thrown a live hand grenade into the mix, in the form of a Metro Mayor.
The council have just over a week to jump on it and accept the Metro Mayor along with any collateral damage, or stick two fingers up and chuck it back.
The basic idea of the Metro Mayor is that Bristol, North Somerset, Bath and North East Somerset, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire join together to create a mega-council that takes control of transport, housing and strategic planning for the whole region.
All of the existing council structures stay in place, but there would be a West of England Combined Authority that can dictate terms on certain key areas. The Combined Authority would be governed by another mayor to be elected May 2017 if it goes forward.
The bait is approximately one billion pounds going mostly towards housing and transport. And what’s the catch? God knows! The general consensus seems to be that everyone recognises that all that free money is too good to be true, so there must be something that’s going to screw Bristol over somewhere down the line.
“Two weeks before a major decision that will affect Bristol for the next 30 years and there’s zero detail on what the deal actually involves.”
The Oversight and Scrutiny Management Board are flipping out about it, or at least as much as it’s possible for a group of councillors to ‘flip out’. The only person that “couldn’t conceal their enthusiasm” for the project was the chair of the meeting and Rupert Murdoch lookalike, Cllr Gollop (C). He’d been closely involved in the plans as part of Mayor Ferguson’s cabinet so that was pretty much expected.
The other Scrutiny members have good reason to be annoyed though. Consider that there’s two weeks before a major decision that will affect Bristol for the next 30 years and there’s zero detail on what the deal actually involves. There’s a lot of fluff about what it could do, nothing about what it will do.
The Board had to wheel out Patricia Greer, the Devolution programme director, to explain the terms of the deal to everyone. The awkward squad made up of Cllr Hopkins (LD), Cllr Bolton (G) and Cllr English (G) were giving her a hard time over the details of the scheme and she only had a few stock answers to give. I felt a little sorry for her. It’s not like she was being obstructive, it’s just that there’s nothing but stock answers to give.
The only thing that does seems clear about this proposal (and as a result is repeated ad infinitum) is this £900m of ‘new money’ that’s supposed to fund the whole program. Even that starts to look a little lame when you think about it.
Over the 30 year deal, £900m actually works out as £30m per year. Half of that goes to support the work of the Combined Authority leaving £15m a year for big capital projects in housing and transport. That’s pocket change once it’s spread out across the different sectors the new authority is supposed to be in charge of.
Even then every project has to demonstrate ‘economic growth’ as defined by the Treasury’s funding model and is subject to a five yearly ‘Gateway Review’. There’s also real worry that all the economic modelling, or in other words actually deciding on the projects, is going to be outsourced to the usual suspects: the big five accountancy firms.
‘Devolution’ seems like a pretty bad word to describe this fuzzy grey mess. The deal is supposed to bring power closer to the people, but ends up putting it into the hands of a single Metro Mayor dancing to the tune of central government.
Despite the administration’s support for the scheme, the problems were best summed up by Mayor Rees himself:
“It would be something that I would stand against. An increasing accumulation of power and distancing decision making from the community level. It would be against the spirit in which I have approached local democracy and local politics.”
“Devolution’ seems like a bad word to describe this fuzzy grey mess.”
North Somerset have already balked and rejected the proposals on this basis. Now the deal hinges on the remaining councils agreeing to the terms. All three need to agree to the proposals for it to go ahead, in separate but simultaneous Full Council meetings on the 29th June. Or at least in Bristol’s case the Mayor needs to accept the deal, with or without the support of council.
So what may be the biggest decision Bristol City Council has to make in the next five years is being rammed through on, what are currently, back-of-a-fag-packet calculations. There’s a real risk that the bizarre decision structure breaks the council’s constitution. Oversight and Scrutiny is going to be ‘problematic’ to say the least. And for a deal that’s supposed to be about devolving power to local people, it’s a little strange that no one has actually asked them what they want.
I summarised how this Full Council meeting will go in my notes simply as: ‘Cluster****’. Despite all the problems, there are going to be plenty of people, Mayor included, pushing for the deal simply because the Council’s funding situation is going to be so dire otherwise. Which is what makes the whole thing so fiendishly clever.
It looks like a pretty shaky deal. But all that money though…