Avon gets a new Mayor as it joins the ‘Devolution Revolution’

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In just over a year’s time, Bristol could have three different mayors at once.

The first is the mayor of Bristol, currently George Ferguson. The second is the Lord Mayor of Bristol, a ceremonial position with no real power.

But the third, announced on Wednesday in Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne’s budget statement, is the proposed mayor for the West of England, who would have new powers over investment, education, transport and more across Bristol, South Gloucestershire, North Somerset, and Bath and North East Somerset (BANES).

But the deal’s not done yet, and a number of local politicians have already voiced their disapproval, with fears that this could see a return to the dark days of Avon (see Rees-Mogg below).

Our political editor reports.

What’s in a (Devolution) Revolution?

George Osborne declared in the House of Commons that ‘‘the devolution revolution is taking hold,’’ having just announced this proposed transfer of power from central government to the new West of England combined authority, comprising the local authorities mentioned above.

The new mayor would control the local transport budget for the entire area. It has long been argued that ‘‘the mayor of Bristol does not have the necessary powers needed to introduce a coherent transport policy,’’ and so this new approach could make it easier to operate a more integrated public transport network.

The new combined authority will create and then contribute towards an investment fund, aided by £30 million a year from the government for thirty years. This will enable the authority to ‘‘deliver an ambitious investment programme across the [region] to unlock the economic potential of the West of England.’’

The authority will be responsible for 19+ adult education, and it will also cooperate with the government over trade and investment, housebuilding, and programmes aimed at helping people with health conditions or disabilities, as well as the long-term unemployed, into work.

The Politics of the Deal

This proposed devolution deal has been agreed by the Chancellor, the local government secretary, the mayor of Bristol, and council leaders in BANES, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire. If all goes to plan, the first mayor will be elected in May 2017. However, while the proposals should have no difficulty passing through parliament, they also have to be ratified by each of the four councils involved, and they have received a mixed reaction so far.

Bristol’s Conservative and Labour council leaders welcomed the move, although the latter expressed concerns that this new arrangement would be ‘‘imposed’’ on the region, and called for voters to be given a choice on how they are governed. Karin Smyth, Labour MP for Bristol South, took a similar stance, remarking that, ‘‘greater cooperation is absolutely vital in the region, especially when it comes to transportation,’’ but that while she was broadly supportive of devolution, she was not in favour of a mayor. Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) did not welcome the proposals, tweeting: ‘‘Osborne confirms plans for a West of England mayor. We don’t want one.’’ The Green Party criticised the fact that the deal had been negotiated ‘‘behind closed doors with no real input from locally elected councillors or consultation with local people.’’

Outside Bristol, Kingswood MP Chris Skidmore was supportive, describing the deal as a ‘‘once in a lifetime opportunity’’ that would ‘‘massively benefit our region, making us masters of our destiny and giving us locally more control.’’

However, Liam Fox (North Somerset) opposed the deal, stating: ‘‘It is the recreation of Avon and the agreement would be for a metro mayor that voters have never given their assent for. It is another layer of bureaucracy and it is undemocratic. It recreates the very organisation that we fought so hard to get rid of.’’

Jacob Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset) described the proposals ‘‘to bring my county of Somerset under the yoke of Bristol’’ as ‘‘outrageous’’, going on to say:

We admire Bristol. We think Bristol is a fine and fabulous city, but it does not need to have Somerset money to subsidise it. It can live off its own. We tried all this with Avon. What Avon meant was that Somerset paid and Bristol spent. I am glad to say that the unitary authorities of the west of England area — what used to be known as Avon and will be Avon again if the Government have their way — will each individually be able to vote down this proposal. I will urge councillors in north-east Somerset — I know that councillors in north Somerset have previously rejected the same idea — to stand firm and not be bullied by the Government. They should not be seduced by £30 million a year, which is considerably less divided by four than the cuts that they have successfully implemented over the past six years. They must be bold and independent. […] I want freedom for the United Kingdom [from the European Union] and freedom for Somerset. I say no to devolution and no to European tyranny.

The Chancellor’s announcement comes less than a week after voters in Bath and North East Somerset rejected proposals for a directly-elected mayor by four to one. It seems unlikely that councillors will now choose to support something similar, meaning that this deal may not be realised.

In other budget news:

  • Tolls for crossing the Severn bridges are to be halved in 2018.
  • The Government has funded a £500,000 study into a new junction 18a on the M4 to link with the Avon ring road A4174.
  • £600,000 is going towards ‘Being Brunel: The National Brunel Project’.