Prof Steve West & Mayor Ferguson on Devolution

Steve West, President of Bristol Chamber of Commerce & Initiative at Business West.

Steve West, President of Bristol Chamber of Commerce & Initiative at Business West.

BLM met with senior business leaders from across the region to talk about devolution and the impact a change of power structure could have on the region.

The panel:

Prof Steve West – Chief Executive and Principal of University of West of England (UWE)

Mayor George Ferguson

Jo Davis – Head of Office GVA Bristol

Prof Steve West

What does devolution mean and what impact will it have?

“Government has a view that in order to ensure you have a vibrant economy, you can devolve power from Westminster to a more local level.

“The UK is more centralised than many other European Countries. And in scale terms, when we compare ourselves to China we would be one sub-region.

“So we’re tiny, but in comparison to other European Countries we are too centralised in how we are governed; and how capital flows through and from regions.

“The problem in the UK is that London and the South East is the powerhouse that is creating funding and does overheat; so the government are looking for a way in which you can support other regions and improve connectivity and productivity and the local environment.

“Devolution offers that chance, and this region has been asked by government to submit a plan and show how we would do this.”

Has it happened elsewhere?

“You’ve seen the northern powerhouse, Manchester. All that has happened is that unitary authorities – and in Manchester there are 10 – have identified a way they can work together on big issues such as planning, housing, transport, education & skills and health and social care.

“Those big ticket items tend to cross council boundaries and are applicable to a broader group of people than a unitary authority covers. People don’t isolate themselves just in Bristol, Bath, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire.

“From an investor perspective it doesn’t make sense to have an artificial boundary between Bristol and North Somerset, or Bristol and South Gloucestershire, because it isn’t actually relevant.”

So how will it work?

“Well devolution offers a new way of joining things up, but it requires a governance structure, and for somebody to be accountable for decisions made and to distribute funding.

“Fundamentally, what Westminster is looking for is a structure that will hold itself to account at a national and regional level; is a devolved region that combines all local authorities and has a figure head that can be called to the Public Accounts Committee – a metro Mayor if you like.”

Would that mean the other councils, for example, become part of a wider metropolitan area and have less power?

“Councils would still manage their area and could technically say they disagree with issues; and unless there is unanimous decision they could veto things. There has to be a structure whereby these things can be discussed and a decision made; and people held to account.

“It’s about thinking about the four councils and what would be the big ticket issues we’d want to determine and manage.”
So why do we need it?

“Because we should be thinking about not how we’re fairing against other UK regions but thinking how we compete against European Countries and globally, because investment is international.

“So when organisations are looking to identify their next regional or head office, they’re looking around the globe and asking where is the best place to locate too.

“So we’re in competition not with Swindon but with Germany or Spain, and that’s what we need to start thinking about. We need to future proof ourselves against a knowledge based global economy.”

Jo Davis - GVA

Jo Davis – GVA

Jo Davis

Why do you believe devolution would be beneficial (or not) for the South West?

“You should really turn this question on its head, can we afford not to engage positively in the devolution debate? Yes, Bristol as a city region has performed well during the economic downturn.

“But without a joined-up city region strategy here, we will see the Northern Powerhouse continue to strengthen, diverting funding, investors and occupiers away from our region.

“It is estimated that devolving more spending over infrastructure, and putting in place the right financing mechanisms, could add collectively £66 billion into our economy.

“The Bristol city region must be at that table and taking a slice of the action if we are to maintain our competitive edge.”

How would such a deal benefit businesses and the wider population?

“With globalism, greater connectivity and digitalisation, it is almost unbelievable to consider we can only address and deliver economic growth, public transport and delivery of new homes, health, education and training under the constraint of historic administrative boundaries.”

Why hasn’t it happened yet in the West; but has in places such as Manchester?

“The Northern Powerhouse has a far greater political maturity and political continuity compared to the Bristol counterpart. However, that said, we have an elected mayor, strong leadership, a clear economic strategy and boast being the only city outside London which makes a positive contribution to GDP.

“We have a strong and respected voice at Whitehall. The critical point is not to see it as a race of who gets devolved powers first; the critical point is to ensure we get it right first time.”

Would you support the introduction of a metro Mayor?

“Yes for all the reasons we’ve already discussed. For the region to continue to grow in a sustainable manner, we cannot deliver all our economic objectives in a city with the physical constraints of Bristol.

“We have to see strong leadership with collective and collegiate working. Investors and occupiers do not work within boundaries and therefore we cannot either, if we want to realise the region’s true potential.”

Mayor Ferguson

Mayor Ferguson

Mayor George Ferguson

Why do you believe devolution would be beneficial (or not) to Bristol and the wider region?

“The West of England is already the UK’s most economically productive region, but our proposed deal will help to secure and improve our position rather than risk falling behind some of our Northern counterparts.

“I strongly believe in investing in success and we’ve an excellent record in this region, with so much to offer the UK economy.

“By putting more investment and power in local hands, we’ll be able to drastically improve the speed and efficiency with which we improve our transport system, reduce congestion, create affordable new homes and help some of society’s most disadvantaged people into training and work.”

Would you be interested in taking up a leadership role – as a metro Mayor for example – should the plans go ahead?

“Our initial proposal does not wed us to a specific form of governance, leaving the door fully open for a constructive conversation with Government. Personally I am open to the prospect of a metro Mayor, though i’m not seeking to hold that office myself.”