This year the West of England entered into an exciting phase of devolution, which saw the region gain greater control over the way it is governed and resourced.
Local authorities in Bristol, South Gloucestershire and Bath & North-East Somerset joined together to establish the West of England Combined Authority (WECA), which is chaired by Mayor Tim Bowles.
Having taken the bold step of moving in favour of devolution, it was fitting that at this year’s Festival of the Future City in Bristol, one of the most vocal proponents of devolved city regions, Lord Michael Heseltine, stopped by to talk about the future of devolution in England.
Welcomed to the stage at the Watershed on Bristol’s harbourside by former Mayor of Bristol George Ferguson, Lord Heseltine began by praising the city’s residents for being the only city out of twelve to vote ‘Yes’ in the 2012 English mayoral referendums.
We now have 7 mayoral authorities across England, including London, which Lord Heseltine described as successfully breaking the functional monopoly of London and giving power to the people.
These changes were a long time in the making said Lord Heseltine, recounting how local governance structures in the UK have steadily been evolving since the 1970s, stating that he feels that devolved authorities are well and truly here to stay.
The UK lags woefully behind the curve internationally and is still extremely centralised, despite the introduction of combined authority and city-level mayors.
That being so, Lord Heseltine suggested that in the UK we’ve ‘only just begun’ creating world-class devolved authorities, and that future mayors should preside over a much wider remit, to include industrial policy, education, unemployment and housing.
Lord Heseltine was quick to talk up the benefit of having Mayors, despite widespread reservations, particularly in the West of England, that it creates an added layer of unnecessary bureaucracy. He stated that not only do Mayors have influence as well as power and money, they’re also accountable to local people, suggesting that the role of Whitehall should be more about ‘quality control’ and framework-setting.
Following an engaging talk by Lord Heseltine - who George Ferguson ironically referred to as the ‘warm-up act’ the audience welcomed Ben Rogers, Director, Centre for London, to the stage. A key champion of regional devolution, Rogers talked up the idea of establishing a ‘British parliament of mayors’, explaining how it would enable England’s core cities to collaborate more closely with one another.
In sharp contrast to Mayoral authorities in other European countries such as Germany, cities across the UK do very little in the way of inter-urban collaboration or resource sharing.
At the thrust of the issue explained Rogers, is that most cities outside of London tend to underperform as a result of their limited resources, suggesting that if they were more closely aligned in terms of a strategic economic plan, they would be in a much better position to mutually benefit.
He went on to say that in light of Brexit, London and the 10 core cities find themselves at a watershed moment in the development of local governance structures. Despite producing half of the country’s wealth, these cities need to work together more and more to ensure that Brexit does not undo decades of regeneration.
As the debate drew to a close, thoughts turned to the future of devolution in the West of England.
While the West of England devolution deal, which was agreed back in May 2016 promised an extra £900m in funding for the region over 30 years, as Lord Heseltine stated, devolution is an ongoing process, rather than a fixed destination.
At present, the West of England region is a devolution deal or two behind comparable city regions such as Manchester.
Whereas Devo Manc, the term used to describe Manchester’s ongoing devolution journey, means that Mayor Andy Burnham’s powers extend to control over the local NHS trusts for example. By contrast, Mayor Tim Bowles’ role is restricted to that of overseeing strategic infrastructure and skills investments in the region.
Clearly, Manchester’s mayor has far greater devolved powers from central Government than the West of England does, not least because they started earlier, but there are already murmurings that powers in the devolved regions of England might, in the near future, be akin to those of city mayors across the pond.
This is positive for the West of England.
With Mayor Tim Bowles’ strategic action plan beginning to take shape and a genuine commitment shown by the local authorities toward ever-greater collaboration, a sustainable, inclusive regional growth agenda is forming.