Politicians ordered to get along

THE government has issued a major warning to the West of England Combined Authority, and ordered its political leaders to get along.

A “best value notice” issued to the combined authority in March by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing, and Communities directs it to set up an “independent improvement panel” to tackle a host of issues, from poor relationships between political leaders to “confusion” about what the combined authority does.

Metro Mayor Dan Norris, who heads the three-council organisation, insisted he would “redouble” his efforts.

The notice said one concern identified was “the poor state of professional relationships between the West of England Combined Authority Mayor and the representatives of the constituent members of the Authority, which is impacting partnership working and potentially limiting the authority’s ability to optimise strategic opportunities.”

Auditors Grant Thornton had previously warned in 2022 that strained relationships between the political leaders were a “significant weakness” and called on them to work together – but the government notice warned there had been “inconsistent action” on this.

There have continued to be a number of high-profile spats between Mr Norris the leaders of Bristol, South Gloucestershire, and Bath & North East Somerset councils, including a row over who should pay for subsidised bus services.

Other concerns raised in the legal notice were the need to review the combined authority’s constitution and the lack of a “clear, shared narrative” about how it will operate for the benefit of the region.

It also warned: “The function and purpose of the authority has not been collectively understood and the roles, responsibilities and ‘powers’ of a combined authority are not fully grasped, resulting in confusion between strategic governance and day to day transactional activity.”

At a WECA scrutiny committee on March 12, Mr Norris said he would “do a reset” when Bristol’s mayoral system is abolished after May’s local elections.

He said: “I think there’s a great opportunity now because we are clearly going to have a different political leadership in Bristol, irrespective of the outcome of the elections themselves.”

Mr Norris and Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees clashed over the feasibility of a London-style underground in Bristol, with Mr Rees’s plans for the system vetoed by Mr Norris.

Mr Norris said the change to South Gloucestershire Council’s administration last year, with a Lib Dem/Labour coalition taking over, was also a “great opportunity for…hopefully new relationships.”

He said there were “a lot of dysfunctional things going on” when he took over as Metro Mayor in 2021 and it was “interesting” that the government notice was being issued in a general election year.

However the chair of WECA’s audit committee, Conservative Bristol city councillor Geoff Gollop, said that the “issues of dysfunctionality” had begun in the autumn of 2021, shortly after Mr Norris was elected.

He said the government had “identified and shared exactly the issues that audit committee have been raising”, adding: “I don’t want to make a choice as to who’s responsible, other than to say the political leaders, in the form of a committee, are the ones who can lead.”

By John Wimperis, Local Democracy Reporting Service