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West of England councils agree to £1bn devolution deal

Bristol, Bath and North East Somerset and South Gloucestershire councils yesterday gave their final endorsement to a £1bn devolution deal, which will see them working together on major transport projects, the local economy and housing.

The three councils decided to plough ahead with the West of England devolution deal in June of this year and carried out a further public consultation in July and August.

Once the deal has full parliamentary approval, the councils will be able to establish the West of England Mayoral Combined Authority (MCA). This is expected to happen early next year and the metro mayoral elections will be held in May 2017.

Bristol mayor Marvin Rees welcomed the decision, describing it as “the biggest change in local decision-making powers in the city region for generations”.

“This deal should bring over nearly £1bn of spending, along with combined powers over transport, home building, local jobs and training, not to mention fairer chances for everyone to access them and share the benefit of our region’s economic success,” Rees said.

Cllr Tim Warren, leader of Bath and North East Somerset Council, and Cllr Matthew Riddle, leader of South Gloucestershire Council, agreed with Lees in praising the devolution deal, calling it one of the “best negotiated” deals in the country that “far outweighs” any other devolution deal so far.

Cllr Warren added that Bath and North East Somerset Council was pleased to be moving ahead with the deal, which he described as essential to its priorities of delivering affordable homes, investing in the local economy and improving transport infrastructure. 

“This is the best possible deal for our area – and one that far outweighs any other devolution deal done elsewhere in the country, both in terms of the funding secured and safeguards in place to protect the absolute autonomy of Bath & North East Somerset Council,” he said.

Cllr Riddle likewise expressed his delight that the deal would mean more local decision-making on key spending areas and praised the “tangible benefits” it would bring to the region.

However, the deal has not been universally highly regarded. Bristol’s Cllr Asher Craig has criticised the lack of public engagement in the debate after just 2,011 residents took part in the six-week consultation about the scheme, with only 55% agreeing it would be the best way forward.

The consultations also revealed a clear difference in opinion between areas towards the devolution deal. While 70% of those taking part in the Bristol City Council consultation said they were in favour of the plans, only 44% of residents in Bath and North East Somerset agreed.   

Despite his praising the deal, Lees described the metro mayors included in devolution deals as “the pill” that councils must take to see future benefits. “This isn’t a cure-all and there will always be some strings attached,” he said. “Making it truly work in the long term will take a lot of graft.

“This is only a first step and as we think ahead to the even greater opportunities offered by future devolution deals, we must ensure this is properly resourced to get the best deal for Bristol and the city region.”

Yesterday the Northern Powerhouse minister Andrew Percy confirmed that the latest £1.8m round of local government grants will be focused on English regions with elected mayors, leading councils to feel forced to drop their objections in order to obtain funds as access to EU funds dries up.

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