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Notes from City Hall: Power to the people?


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 (

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…

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  • Puzzling piece this. At least the author didn’t even pretend to do any kind of attempt at balanced reporting here. I wonder if he’s actually read the draft devolution agreement. It’s not super-detailed, but it’s clear in what areas the new metro mayor will have powers, and where not.

    It’s unclear to me why the mayor would be dancing to the tune of central government seeing that (a) they would be elected *directly by the people* and (b) funding is provided as a grant directly for a 30-year period. It would be one of the least dependent authorities in the region really. Nevermind that councils currently have to beg central government for funding for every little thing they want to build that’s bigger than a bus shelter.

    Not that there aren’t problems, but I think the basic idea behind this is sound in terms of accountability and democracy. The problem central government faces is that there are real issues around co-operation, accountability, and delivery of big long-term infrastructure projects. The current setup might “work” for the people involved, but it’s essentially committees of committees in partnership with businesses and whatnot, a complete muddle. No accountability, certainly not to the electorate.

    Seeing the current system (West of England partnership, LEPs, joint transport board and whatnot) and the proposed directly-elect “metro mayor” I find it surprising that the Cable is not a bit more supportive of these plans.


  • I’d never pretend to be balanced, but of course I’ve read the agreement. £900m is the only number in it, and no real mention of what any of it is going to be used for across a huge span of potential projects.

    I appreciate that the new authority is, to an extent, going to be working this all out as it goes along but as of last week the details weren’t, as far as I know, even written up and certainly not distributed to the premiere oversight committee in the council. We’ll get more tomorrow afternoon but it’s awfully late in the day.

    Sure, they’d be directly elected but so are police and Crime Commissioners and they’re not exactly famous for being public facing or especially accountable.

    And yeah, LEP is what everyone’s worried about it becoming but to this reads as more of the same rather than anything new. I mean, you might have read that: “This agreement continues to recognise the importance of the LEP and the private sector in the design and delivery of the area’s economic growth strategies.”


    • Thanks for your answers, Sid.

      Agree about the Police and Crime Commissioners, and never really saw the point.

      I believe this is different to some extent, because people do care about infrastructure projects. Congestion, new roads, motorway exits, new railway stations, new railway lines, busses, that’s everyday life stuff for pretty much everyone.

      Ok, so you’re saying the Combined Authority couldn’t do just anything it liked, but any projects would still need to be growth-oriented and pass some cost-benefit thresholds calculated according to the Green Book? I’m not sure I’d characterise that as “dancing to the tune of central government”. It’s a restriction, but one that applies nation-wide, so it’s not like central government gives the thumbs-up/thumbs-down as they please, is it? If they can make HS2 pass these, I’m sure our CA will find ways to get things past the thresholds ;) But at least there’s funding that’s not competitive, so if there’s a low-CBR project that just passes the threshold but is deemed highly beneficial for reasons not captured by the CBR analysis (e.g. the Henbury Loop) then it’s fine to progress that instead of seeing it outbid by projects elsewhere with a higher ratio. At least that’s my understanding, which may well be wrong.

      I don’t know much about the Green Book or PFI. I suspect PFI is a separate special-case, surely it doesn’t invalidate everything and anything in the Green Book? It makes sense to me to codify some methodology. It might not be perfect or even right, but at least it’s consistent and you can argue about it and figure out how to improve it over time. What’s the alternative? And in any case, I see this as an issue that’s entirely orthogonal to the Metro Mayor issue.


      • Yep yep, don’t disagree with anything you’ve said really. Maybe ‘dancing to the tune of central government’ is a little cruel, but they’ll certainly be looking to put a thumb (or a brick) on the scales here and there and it seems like it’ll be easier to push *one* Metro Mayor around than a Mayor attached to a Council body.

        What makes me rather suspicious is that the government seem desperate for it. You’d think that £900m between four councils would be ~£675 between three (after N.S. dropped out), but nope. Stuffing their mouths with gold?

        My thinking on the Treasury Green Book stuff is that it that because it’s *so* geared towards a rather spurious measure of ‘economic growth’ it actually makes it hard to pursue more progressive programmes because they’re not going to be as ‘viable’ as strictly commercial ones. When faced with a choice between two housing projects, one with high % affordable housing and one with low %, the model is going to tell you the commercial venture wins and that’s what gets built.

        Also, with so little raw cash to put towards projects I’m guessing we’ll be looking at a hell of a lot of ‘public private partnerships’, if not straight up PFI.

  • Oh and on your point on central government control the key part is, as usual, buried at the bottom. The Authority has to choose all it’s projects according to the Treasury Green Book which contains all the financial models and procedures. The CA gets to choose the projects…spat out by the Treasury’s model.

    It’s the same basic model that’s brought us the beauty of PFI for the two decades. And the National Audit Office ripped to shreds, and surely will do again.

    That and the ‘Employment’ section of the Agreement is entirely a Department of Work and Pensions project that the CA happens to be roped into and my reading of the agreement says that the CA will be sharing an office with UK Trade and Industry in the Engine Shed.


  • If the Bristol Cable is going to maintain its position as the “saviour” of Bristol’s media, doesn’t need to run articles we can trust to intelligently navigate us through the issues rather than pushing a one sided view. Help people engage with the political dilemmas. Please help us become more intelligent. There are problems with the Metro Mayor. But its not simply problems. Also, I heard the debates and the Mayor. Its misleading to quote the Mayor as you have. The BC has got off to a good start. Please don’t take that for granted and fall into the trap of becoming another version of the self important, self righteous kind of media you decry. I’d suggest a meeting of the editors to revisit your aims and standards.


    • I’m not quite sure what you mean here with regards to it being one sided. It’s as if I’m cheerleading for rejecting the plans, just parroting what the Oversight and Scrutiny Committee spent an hour doing, which was press for further details on exactly how this is all going to work.

      I *can* see positive things with the Metro Mayor, but so far most of what we’ve heard is one sided in the other direction. And my mind is always open, I’ve just not heard anything to convince me otherwise…

      Anyway, bias is in the eyes of the beholder so maybe we could do better at marking this out so in the future my ramblings aren’t confused with the ‘official’ views of the Cable.

      As for the quote, it’s actually a direct quote from the Mayor last week and not the debates.


  • Is it reasonable and proportionate that they get given so little time – ‘just over a week’ I believe you mention, to make such an important decision concerning the future of democracy?


  • Could you estimate the political maths? Seems like a Tory govt proposal to dilute Labour Bristol with the surrounding Tory areas, unless you know otherwise…
    And the apparent large ££ are easily used up – let’s see how much difference the vastly expensive metrobus makes.


  • Agenda 21 now renamed Agenda 30 (they have had to push the date back) is all about creating City Regions.

    What I have learned about this Agenda fits right into this scenario. (Its no conspiracy).

    Devolution is not so much about devolving power from the Centre, but more about Devolving power from individual Sovereign States.

    We already have Global Mayoral Seminars/Meetings.Training.

    Decisions are made about global issues and networks are set up.
    These new Mayoral positions/groups are designed to eventually sidestep Individual nations and for a new governing tentacle of the New World Order.

    Regions are part of the plan.

    Regions span throughout the EU. the EU already has maps where each Region is numbered.

    There is a much bigger picture here.

    Police Commissioners are required to carry around a mobile phone supplied by the Government and are briefed regularly by the Government.

    They call it all devolution, putting power into the hands of local councils, when what it really is, is Centralised Control at a Local Level.

    I realise I have provided no evidence here but its very easy to find. Its all out there.

    Research: Agenda 21 Agenda 30

    A political so called Charity called “Common Purpose”. (This is the company (now operating globally) who is Training Leaders for the future. Much of their training centres around what they describe as ‘Disruptive Change Agenda’.

    A prime example of this kind of Disruptive Change in action is the Dismantling of our NHS.

    They train up people who fit a certain psychological profile and then inject them into prominent leadership positions in order to disrupt so that change can be brought about rapidly.

    I also realise this may appear a bit off subject, but if you dig a bit deeper I believe you will find that this is actually the finger on the pulse (albeit covert pulse).


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