Yesterday saw the first meeting of the West of England Combined Authority in Bristol. The meeting was over in less than 30 minutes and seemed to have ended with more questions than answers for the 50 or so attendees.
There was however a strong turnout from the local and regional media to mark this first meeting of council leaders and chief executives of South Gloucestershire, Bath and North East Somerset and Bristol councils.
The elephant in the room was the absence of North Somerset, which is not part of the devolution agreement. Will this change if things are successful? Leader of South Gloucestershire Cllr Matthew Riddle and Leader of Bath and North East Somerset Cllr Tim Warren stated that they wish to continue to work with the North Somerset and they already have good working relationships through the West of England working arrangements.
Cllr Warren also asked for clarification on the impact of the new combined authority on the West of England Joint Spatial Plan. No further information was provided other than that a transition plan is currently being developed. The new metro mayor will have a remit to implement the joint local plan, once this is finalised.
Another member of the Combined Authority is Stephen Robertson, the chair of the West of England LEP, who has also held the role of chair of Business West.
Members of the public made the point that businesses cannot grow without the infrastructure to get people to the jobs. As someone who travels across the patch to get to work every day, I would say that traffic is a huge issue for the region. The new administration will have an important role to play in addressing this.
The expectation of new transport infrastructure needs to be managed carefully due to budgets and time. We only have to look at the Metro Bus which has been in development since 2006 and the costs have spiralled out of control.
There are lots of questions at this early stage. Take First Bus, for example, which has commercial contracts for areas across the West of England. The Metro Mayor has the ability to franchise the bus network. How could this work in North Somerset? There will be many similar questions to answer as the new combined authority develops.
So far, there has been very little public excitement in the prospect of the metro mayor. In a small survey last year we found that some people are up for this, but many are still not aware. There are not any elections in the three local authorities this May so the voter turnout will most likely be through the floor.
Candidates have now been selected and campaigning has begun. We wait to see the focus the candidates’ manifesto’s take. Will housing or transport take the lead?