The uneasy alliance between the region’s political leaders crumbled spectacularly as four council leaders pulled out of a public meeting with metro mayor Dan Norris to discuss hundreds of millions of pounds of investment.
Bristol’s city mayor Marvin Rees and the leaders of South Gloucestershire, Bath & North East Somerset and North Somerset councils – councillors Toby Savage, Kevin Guy and Don Davies respectively – refused to attend over claims Norris’s power of veto is “unlawful”.
The bust-up has been widely criticised and vital funding decisions are now on ice.
West of England Combined Authority (Weca) committee, and the joint committee with the addition of North Somerset, was due to take place in the council chamber at Bristol City Hall on Friday.
But when the West of England mayor arrived shortly before 10.30am he was told the booking had been cancelled and what was left of the meeting was moved into a small committee side room, where only a few agenda items that could take place went ahead, including public forum and a report from the scrutiny committee.
But the bulk of the meeting – and crucially the decisions – did not happen because of the breakdown in relationships which is threatening to become a full-blown regional constitutional crisis.
These included approving a £50 million green recovery fund, with at least £20 million from the combined authority and the rest “leveraged” from other sources for projects like retrofitting and electric vehicle charging points, and an extra £10 million to double Covid recovery aid.
Those big new projects are now on hold, along with a Weca senior officer restructure to create new director roles for environment and transport, while members were also due to discuss a half-billion-pound, five-year government settlement for buses as well as other major bus programmes.
Why have they fallen out?
The bust-up follows concerns that Norris vetoed proposals last month at the West of England joint committee, which is Weca committee – the two mayors and councillors Savage and Guy – plus councillor Davies.
Legal advice to the metro mayor said he had a veto on joint committee decisions, but this week a leaked letter revealed the council leaders are disputing he has this power, calling it “unlawful”, and point out that North Somerset residents do not have a say in the Weca mayoral election.
They insist they withdrew from Friday’s meeting because any decisions made could be challenged.
Norris said it may take the government to intervene to break the deadlock because there are similar tensions between councils and combined authorities across the country.
He opened the meeting by explaining it was not “quorate”, which means not enough members were there to make any decisions. “That’s clearly disappointing. No money will be allocated today for some of the really important projects,” the metro mayor said.
“I’m interested in policies not process. The public hate political game-playing and they must come first.
“We have to get on with tackling the climate emergency. We have ambitious carbon targets for 2030 and I don’t want our region to get an unfair reputation as climate delayers.
“The COP summit is three weeks away and we are not able to make big decisions about how to spend £50 million to make our environment better, which seems crazy.
“Combined authorities led by metro mayors are quite new, and the powers which made more sense to be handled at a regional level, like broadband and transport, were taken away from councils and government to create metro mayors, who are the new game in town if we want more resources for our region.”
Speaking afterwards, he said the arguments were “all about power and money”.
“The government has imposed a metro mayor on their region and they don’t like it. The government is probably going to have to come in and sort this out,” he said.
Norris said the disputed veto on joint committee voting would not have been an issue at the meeting because the main funding decisions required the agreement of Weca committee members only, where different rules apply.
“The leaders should have been here today for the combined authority meeting, which allocates money for a lot of the essential things for our region, because that committee hasn’t been affected by their concerns,” he said.
“Their issue is with the joint committee. They could have parked that, come today and said ‘we’re not dealing with that but we’ll deal with the Weca committee’, which is where I have power to allocate money if I have the support of the leaders.
“So it was their choice to stop the money. They didn’t have to do that. They could have been just as robust about their argument and put the money through today if they’d chosen to.”
How others have reacted
Scrutiny committee chairman and B&NES Lib Dem councillor Winston Duguid said: “There are 10 combined authorities up and down the country and they all face the same challenges as us.
“There is inherent friction. Conflict is inevitable but combat is optional, so it’s about how we approach this.”
In a joint statement, the leaders of B&NES, Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire councils said: “Our top priority for the region is to bring the homes, jobs, skills and good transport links that the communities and people of West of England need.
“Unfortunately West of England leaders are unable to attend the scheduled meeting today due to ongoing legal concerns.
“These unanswered concerns relate to the governance of the joint committee, specifically the voting arrangements on which policy is decided.”
A Bristol City Council spokesperson said: “Over a week ago, the unitary authorities raised the point that the Weca and joint committees could not go ahead due to some concerns around the unlawful context of the joint committee meeting.
“The four unitary authorities had received legal advice that raised concerns and jointly proposed that the meetings scheduled for today were rearranged, to allow for the legal concerns to be resolved by the unitary and combined authority legal officers.
“Having received a refusal to rearrange from the combined authority with no indication that the faulty procedural arrangements would be put right, the unitary authorities wrote to confirm we could not take part in a meeting where essential decisions could be laid open to challenge and proposed a meeting on November 5, to follow the resolution of the legal concerns.
“Bristol City Council is only interested in ensuring our ambitions and decisions on important issues regarding the future of the city and region are robust and lawful, as our citizens would expect.”
Bristol Green councillor Tony Dyer, who was at the meeting, said: “Clearly there is a serious breakdown in mutual trust and disagreement over the governance and operation of Weca that requires urgent attention.
“Reputational damage to our region has almost certainly already been incurred. Not taking sides but this clearly requires a swift resolution.”
The committee also needed to agree £24 million for Bristol Temple Meads’ eastern entrance, £2.2 million for Temple Quarter regeneration programme, £3 million for high streets and £3 million to develop a full business case for Charfield railway station in South Gloucestershire. While the funding for these is delayed, the projects are long-running and ultimately not at risk.