Four years after it was set up, local arguments have again flared up over the future of WECA. The West of England Combined Authority was set up to devolve power to the region, leveraging in funding to help deliver more jobs and better housing and public transport.
Currently made up of three local councils – Bath & North East Somerset, Bristol, and South Gloucestershire – WECA is no stranger to controversy after North Somerset turned its back on joining the authority in 2016. Seen as a mistake by many at the time, North Somerset since asked to join under new leadership. However this request was blocked by Bristol’s Mayor Marvin Rees over a funding row, prompting outcry from the other authorities and a political spat.
As a result, an Extraordinary Full Council meeting was called on Weds 25th November by Bristol opposition councillors to discuss WECA’s future. Green Councillor Jerome Thomas was one of the signatories to the motion that called the meeting. Speaking at the meeting, he said:
“It’s nonsensical that North Somerset isn’t currently part of WECA. Nearly a quarter of North Somerset’s workers work in Bristol. Half of Bristol’s port is in WECA, half of it isn’t. Bristol’s airport is in North Somerset and is outside WECA. It’s pretty clear that we can’t sort out our city’s transport or housing crises unless we work with our next door neighbours.”
Rather than focussing on attributing blame to either side for the breakdown in WECA’s expansion, Green speeches at the meeting concentrated on the benefits of working together, and called on Bristol’s Mayor to open the stalled consultation and negotiate in good faith. Councillor Denyer said:
“It’s clear we need better leadership both in Bristol and in the region – but rather than getting drawn into a pointless blame game we need to focus on what’s best for the city and our region, which is a working regional body that includes all four members. Only cross-boundary, cross-party work will deliver the homes and transport system we all need.”
However, the West of England Mayor and Bristol Mayor did not get away without any criticism. Councillor Denyer also said,
“I am extremely disappointed by our Conservative Metro Mayor Tim Bowles, who has failed to represent any of us with Government. Look at Greater Manchester – they have new houses, transport, and have negotiated 5 more rounds of devolved powers and funding. What do we have? A lacklustre metro mayor who has had no impact.”
Green councillors welcomed the meeting’s eventual result – the original motion was amended by Labour but still demonstrated strong support for WECA expansion, and called on the Mayor to meet urgently with other WECA authority leaders to agree a deal and publish the statutory consultation on North Somerset joining WECA.
Speaking after the meeting, Councillor Thomas said:
“I don’t think it’s right for major decisions like this to be made privately by the Mayor without consultation or debate so I’m glad to have helped bring this meeting about. It has shown very clearly that Bristol Council supports North Somerset joining the Combined Authority – now the Mayor needs to get on with it and make that happen.”
“All the evidence shows with devolution in the rest of the country, that when regions prove that they can work together, then significant funding will follow. Far more funding than if small differences prevent us from working together. But we need proper leadership. Properly representing us to negotiate funding with government, not just Mayors walking away from difficult negotiations.”
– The amended motion is attached here. Green councillors supported the amendment because it demonstrated support for North Somerset joining WECA and called on the Mayor to meet urgently with WECA leaders and publish the statutory consultation:
“Council calls on the Mayor and Chief Executive to meet urgently with other WECA authority leaders to agree a new financial settlement, review the methodology for distributing WECA funds and a clear governance arrangement and publish the statutory consultation on North Somerset joining WECA.”