A mediator has been appointed to try to break the deadlock between the region’s sparring political leaders.
West of England metro mayor Dan Norris denied the move was like “marriage guidance” despite tensions spilling out into the open between him and the leaders of Bristol, South Gloucestershire, Bath & North East Somerset and North Somerset councils.
Labour’s Mr Norris told BBC1’s Politics West on Sunday, 7th November, that University of the West of England vice-chancellor Steve West will talk to all parties to try to get to the root of the spat.
Professor West was a non-voting member of the West of England Combined Authority (Weca) committee and regional joint committee – Weca plus North Somerset – alongside the leaders from 2017-21 as chairman of the Local Enterprise Partnership before his term ended in June.
The working relationship has since soured between new metro mayor Mr Norris and fellow Labour Bristol city mayor Marvin Rees, South Gloucestershire Council Conservative leader Cllr Toby Savage, B&NES Council Lib Dem leader Cllr Kevin Guy and North Somerset Council independent leader Cllr Don Davies.
Crisis point was reached when the four local authority leaders boycotted October’s Weca committee over concerns the West of England mayor vetoed their proposals “unlawfully” at the previous meeting.
A request by Mr Rees and Cllrs Savage, Guy and Davies to reconvene on Friday, 5th November, in the hope the “ongoing legal concerns” would have been resolved, was turned down by Mr Norris who has instead set a new date with a “brand new agenda focussing firmly on the future” for 3rd December.
He told Politics West he believed the other leaders would eventually join him but that it could take time.
“Steve West is going to do his review. He’s going to meet with all the leaders, including me, and all the chief executives, including my great chief executive Patricia Greer,” Mr Norris said.
“He’s going to work out if he can see a way forward. He’s going to try to find out what the real key issues are because I don’t really think it’s about vetos or not vetos, there are other issues here. That is just the way it is coming out.”
Host David Garmston asked: “So this is sort of marriage guidance?”
Mr Norris replied: “No, I don’t think it’s about marriage guidance, it’s about being clear about what the role of the metro mayor is.
“I want the powers the Government gives me, whatever they are, and I want the council leaders to understand what those are and work within the framework the Government has set.
“It’s not down to me, it’s down the Government. It’s a democratically elected Government, they’ve determined there should be metro mayors, we all have to work with the rules.”
He said similar issues were being played out at combined authorities across the country, regardless of political party.
“It’s the way they were created. It wasn’t done in the best of ways so it’s created these tensions,” Mr Norris said.
“I’ve spoken to Michael Gove when I saw him recently about this, and the Prime Minister, and it’s quite clear to me that they recognise there are tensions with the system throughout the country. It’s not unique to us.
“I’m going to keep focusing on the people who elected me, putting forward the manifesto I was elected on with a large majority, and I hope the leaders will come along with me.
“I think they will in the end, it just depends on how long it’s going to take.”
He said Tory predecessor Tim Bowles “probably gave in” to the council leaders’ demands.
“I’m not prepared to do that where there are important issues about serving our communities,” Mr Norris said.
“I was elected by the people, they are my first concern. I’m not really bothered about procedures or legal arguments, frankly. I’m determined to get policies through and things delivered.”
Responding to Mr Norris rescheduling the Weca meeting for December, the council leaders said in a joint statement last week: “In the week of COP26 it is particularly disappointing that we are having to wait another month to make progress on our shared and urgent climate objectives.”
Legal advisers at all four local authorities dispute Mr Norris’s right to veto West of England joint committee decisions.
Adam Postans, Local Democracy Reporter