£600m ‘at risk’ in West of England political power struggle, council leaders warned

“I want you all to know this is serious,” said Metro Mayor Dan Norris

<p>The West of England joint committee meeting at Kingswood civic centre on Friday, April 8.</p>

The West of England joint committee meeting at Kingswood civic centre on Friday, April 8.

A political power struggle over who controls up to £600million of investment in the region is putting the entire money at risk, the leaders of four councils were warned.

The men in charge of Bristol, South Gloucestershire, Bath & North East Somerset and North Somerset unitary authorities have agreed to rip up and rewrite the rules governing the West of England joint committee to give them greater say over its funding decisions.

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The proposed changes, to be finalised by June, include ousting metro mayor Dan Norris as committee chairman amid “frustration” that the West of England Combined Authority (Weca), which he heads, is developing proposals without seeking sufficient input from the councils.

But the four local authority leaders, who sit with Mr Norris on the joint committee to oversee how various regional funding streams that pre-date Weca’s creation should be spent, were warned they could lose the lot, including a 25-year, £500million Economic Development Fund (EDF) for jobs infrastructure.

Weca chief executive Patricia Greer told them at a meeting on Friday, April 8, that their plans to simply change the committee’s rules, officially called standing orders, would breach an assurance agreement with the government setting out strict guidelines on the effective use of public money.

The West of England joint committee meeting at Kingswood civic centre on Friday, April 8.

However, the council leaders dismissed her concerns as a “red herring”, insisting no final decisions were being made, and voted to dissolve the current arrangements.

Labour’s Mr Norris, whose role on the Weca committee – which does not include North Somerset – would remain unaffected, said he was “deeply worried” the region could now lose up to £600million.

“What I’ve heard today is of such significance, so concerning. Our region desperately needs money for all the important things that need to happen, so I’m not prepared to just let this go by on the nod,” he told the meeting.

“I want you all to know this is serious.

As metro mayor, in mind of the fact that this raises such serious issues of concern financially for the West of England, I will be inviting the chairs of audit and scrutiny committees to consider these matters.”

South Gloucestershire Council leader Conservative Cllr Toby Savage said afterwards: “It is a complete red herring to suggest that funding is being put at risk.”

He said the proposals agreed by the four leaders merely set out a “direction of travel” and were not final approval.

A report to members, written by the head of Bristol City Council’s executive office Ben Mosley, said the governance overhaul was needed because of an “inappropriate” blurring between the roles of the joint committee and Weca committee.

It said the joint committee should consider commissioning its own branding, logo and website to make it distinct from the combined authority.

The report said Weca taking the lead on producing proposals had given it an “undue amount of influence” over the allocation of money from the EDF and other pots.

But Ms Greer told the meeting that the combined authority was the accountable body for these funds and that to get the cash it had to sign up to an agreement with the Government called the Local Growth Assurance Framework.

She said this set out how the accountable body had to operate, and that she and one other designated officer were required to make periodic statements to Whitehall confirming the guidelines were being followed and processes were “compliant and suitably robust”.

“I have to say that what I’m hearing being proposed is not in line with our assurance framework which has been agreed with government which enables us to draw down the money,” the chief executive said.

“This means I will have to write to government formally to tell them we are unable to continue to fulfil the requirements as set out in our existing assurance framework.

“We are setting a direction of travel which goes against government guidelines and goes against what we’ve got agreed in our assurance framework about accountabilities.”

Cllr Savage said: “With respect that’s not what we are agreeing today. You have wholly misread and misinterpreted what has been proposed.”

Ms Greer replied: “I would strongly advise that this is not how to take decisions about huge sums of money and setting out a direction of travel.”

Bath & North East Somerset Council leader Lib Dem Cllr Kevin Guy said: “The four of us have made a decision. It’s only about looking at and developing something and bringing it back to the next meeting.

“There is nothing that will fundamentally change the way we deal with government, there is nothing that will fundamentally change the system at all.

“What you’ve said, Patricia, is wholly inaccurate and misinterpreted what this paper is about.”

Responding to concerns that the four leaders were looking to remove Mr Norris from the joint committee altogether and not just as chairman, North Somerset Council leader independent Cllr Don Davies said there was no intention of that.