North Somerset could join WECA - but faces a four-year wait
Henry Woodsford & Adam Postans
- Credit: Archant
Bristol city councillors have passed a motion supporting North Somerset’s bid to join the West of England Combined Authority (WECA) – but it could face a four-year wait.
Opposition Conservative and Lib Dem members criticised the final version pushed through by the ruling Labour group with support from the Green Party as ‘kicking the issue into the long grass’ by removing the need for consultation by the Government’s deadline on November 27.
They claim it means there is now no chance WECA will expand until the next local elections cycle.
The Greens say they backed Labour’s amendment because it still ‘demonstrates strong support for North Somerset’s inclusion’ and calls on Bristol mayor Marvin Rees to meet urgently with other WECA leaders to agree a deal and publish the statutory consultation.
Members from all parties agreed at an extraordinary meeting of full council on November 25 that North Somerset’s exclusion from WECA was ‘nonsensical’.
But Mr Rees said a financial package from the Government needed to be in place first or the risks to the city would be too high.
He told the remote meeting: “There is no deal on the table for us to agree. The Government has cancelled two scheduled meetings to discuss the potential of a deal, which shows a lack of interest.
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“We would be one voice among four local authorities rather than one among three, and the only city voice among three rural voices.
“We want safeguards within the governance that our interests will be looked after.
“The relationship between Bristol and its neighbours has been a very strong narrative historically around clipping Bristol’s wings, not expanding to the point that the consequences of Bristol’s growth spills over the boundaries and hits village life.”
He said the city would be potentially ‘short-changed’ by the assumption that WECA’s money was split equally between the unitary authorities despite Bristol having a larger population and greater needs in terms of deprivation.
Mr Rees said Conservative metro mayor Tim Bowles should have pushed his own party’s government months ago for North Somerset’s inclusion but that it had been left until the 11th hour, a claim disputed by WECA and the leaders of the neighbouring authorities.
Mr Rees said: “It’s like the kids haven’t done their homework and they’re asking the teacher to give them a pass on the paper anyway a minute before midnight.
“The work has not been done.”
The mayor said it was very unlikely that the treasury would give more money to an ‘underperforming, relatively invisible’ political structure rather than specific projects during an economic crisis.
He added: “It’s a big bet and it’s incredibly optimistic.
“This is not about Bristol wanting to block anything, this is about the failure of the combined authority to get deals done.
“We would be going down that rabbit hole of moving towards an expanded combined authority with no additional money and all the risks.
“I’m not opposed to North Somerset joining the combined authority but safeguarding Bristol’s economy is more important to the West of England’s economy than North Somerset joining WECA.
“That’s not a boastful statement, it’s economic fact.
“This is about looking after the interests of Bristol people.”
The amended motion was passed by 42 votes to three, with 17 abstentions.
Labour cabinet member, councillor Steve Pearce, said: “Not all areas were created equal – some are more equal than others.
“Despite making up the bulk of the population and being the main wealth creator in the region, Bristol is being neglected and funding is not allocated proportionately to population.”
Green group leader, councillor Eleanor Combley, said the amended motion ‘still clearly states Bristol City Council believes North Somerset belongs in WECA’.
She said: “This amendment does not prevent the consultation being launched on a timescale that gets North Somerset into Weca in 2021 – I could not support it if it did.
“It allows a consultation to proceed in parallel with continuing discussions on the details.”
Cllr Steve Smith said it was 'blindingly obvious’ North Somerset should be part of WECA and the district’s decision in 2016 not to join was a ‘mistake we can put right’.
He said: “The economic case is overwhelming.
“There isn’t a Bristol economy and a North Somerset economy.,
“The two are the same thing. You cannot separate the two.
“There isn’t a bet or gamble here."