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Government / Local politics

Why does nobody want to devolve power to Bristol?

It’s the only big city in England and Wales outside of the capital that consistently performs above the national average on a whole host of important economic measures. It’s one of only a handful of cities in the UK that already has a directly elected mayor. And as a city-region, the area has a vibrant business community, a thriving knowledge economy, a host of cultural and heritage attractions, and excellent connectivity to London.

And yet despite these attributes, the Bristol city-region has been conspicuously absent from the public and political discourse surrounding city devolution over the last 12 months. This was exemplified in the government’s final Budget statement, which included announcements regarding additional transport investment for the South West, but no commitment to transfer more power to the local area.

The fundamentals of the Bristol economy, and the high levels of business demand and investment that exist in the area, should make the city a good bet for further devolution. But instead, we’ve seen the likes of Sheffield, Leeds, and in particular Manchester, dominating negotiations for extended devolution from Whitehall.

This was the big issue raised by the city region’s business leaders at a meeting last week. They expressed a fear that, as the momentum behind the “Northern Powerhouse” agenda continues to build, Bristol risks being left behind.

So why have we seen such  progress on devolution settlements for places in the north, but none for Bristol; and what can be done to put the city back in the vanguard of devolution?

First, it should be noted that the recent, substantial package of devolution to Greater Manchester, and the less substantial packages to the Sheffield and West Yorkshire city-regions, have been driven as much by long-term political plans, as any sense of a “long-term economic plan”.

Given the big debates on the economy and public finances continue to be dominated by spatial arguments of whether the current distribution of pain and gain is unfair, both the chancellor and the deputy prime minister have recognised the importance of positioning their parties as champions of “the North” – a term that has become political shorthand for demonstrating that the economic recovery they have overseen has reached all parts of the country.

Ever the political strategist, Osborne knows that if his party is to win an outright majority for the first time in over 20 years, the Conservatives must be capable of taking more seats in the North as well as the South, and in urban areas as well as rural. Although his “Northern Powerhouse” agenda may not pay out a direct electoral dividend in 2015, he hopes that it could lay the foundation stones for a Conservative renaissance in the region in 2020 or 2025.

As for Clegg, it is vital he is able to demonstrate to the electorate and his own party members that in taking the Liberal Democrats into government, he has been able to secure real progress on their long-held aspirations to decentralise power across the UK. And of course, the deputy prime minister’s own political career hinges on his ability to persuade the voters of Sheffield Hallam that he, and the Liberal Democrats, have served their area well over the last five years.

Viewed through this lens, it is clear that, as a relatively prosperous area in the South West of the country, there is simply less of a political imperative for senior government politicians to prioritise doing an expanded deal with the Bristol City Region than there is for one with the cities of the north.

Second, the recent tranche of City Deals also reflect the extent to which those within central government trust and feel they can do business with the local leaders of these cities.

The ability of leaders across Greater Manchester to speak with one voice, and demonstrate a commitment to working in tandem to deliver improvements to the city region as a whole – even to the point of accepting the imposition of a city-region mayor from central government – has given Osborne and his officials the confidence to press ahead with a devolution deal of unprecedented ambition.

Emerging city-region working in Sheffield and West Yorkshire may have enabled these places to secure deals of their own, but the difference in scope and scale of these arrangements compared to Greater Manchester is, to a large extent, a result of their unwillingness or inability to accept the revised governance arrangements that Osborne and colleagues have insisted upon.

The lack of stable city-region governance across Bristol and its hinterland has made it fundamentally impossible to make even that much progress. The absence of a combined authority for the wider city-region, and the uncertain relationships that exist between the neighbouring councils, mean that, even if the chancellor or the deputy prime minister had intended to strike a devolution deal for the area, the institution simply doesn’t exist for them to transfer power down to.

Given both of these factors, the case for devolution to the Bristol city-region will inevitably be distinct from those of northern cities. Local politicians and business leaders must make the most of the city-region’s strong economic performance and the likely returns that increased investment in the area would have for the national economy. But there should also be a sharp focus on the risks associated with escalating house prices and congestion, and the necessity of more local powers to tackle these significant challenges.

Most fundamentally however, given that both the Conservatives and the Labour Party seem committed to encouraging the formation of more combined authorities, and view those as the primary unit through which to deliver more devolution, the leaders of the local councils within the Bristol city-region must commit to working more closely together, and to a review of their governance arrangements. This is the only way to ensure that the Bristol city-region is positioned at the forefront of any further city devolution in the next parliament.

Ben Harrison is director of partnerships at the Centre for Cities.

This is an edited version of an article originally posted on the think tank’s blog
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