Battle lines have been drawn ahead of the West of England Combined Authority (Weca) committee today (December 3) over a £50million green recovery fund – the first time the region’s top politicians will have met since a major bust-up.
The regional mayor is at loggerheads with the leaders of Bristol, South Gloucestershire and Bath & North East Somerset councils over which schemes should get money from the fund.
He says their demands amount to “blackmail” and accuses them of using the environment as a “hostage to vanity projects” unrelated to climate change issues, while the three leaders insist they are “vital areas of work” needed to deliver net-zero ambitions.
It marks a new front in the power tussle between the two sides, with both set to table their own proposals for the fund tomorrow.
This is the third time Mr Norris has tried to bring the environmental package to a vote.
At the September committee the metro mayor, Bristol deputy mayor Cllr Craig Cheney, who was standing in for Mr Rees, South Gloucestershire Council leader Conservative Cllr Toby Savage and B&NES Council leader Lib Dem Cllr Kevin Guy agreed it was not ambitious enough so went back to the drawing board.
But that was when a rift emerged as Mr Norris blocked proposals by the other leaders, which resulted in them boycotting the October meeting insisting he was overriding their motions “unlawfully”.
The dispute appeared to be nearing an end two weeks ago when the metro mayor announced he would be dropping his claim to a veto at the West of England joint committee – Weca plus North Somerset – following new legal advice.
But even ahead of the expected clash on Friday, leaked emails seen by the Local Democracy Reporting Service revealed he cancelled the usual pre-meeting between the politicians to agree the committee agenda to avoid another “flashpoint”, saying their meetings had only “heightened tensions”.
That was to the dismay of Cllr Savage who replied that their problems were because they did not meet often enough and there was “enormous risk” in going ahead with Friday’s committee without co-producing the reports. The warning has now been realised after the three council leaders announced on Thursday (November 2) that they were tabling an amendment to Mr Norris’s proposed green recovery fund, which includes £30million of Weca money for initial priorities such as retrofitting homes and new electric vehicle charging points.
Their counter-proposal backs the creation of the fund while also confirming funding for other projects.
They include “green infrastructure, energy and development opportunities” in the Somer Valley, digital connectivity in rural areas, relocating Bath’s Fashion Museum to Milsom Street to anchor a new cultural district, opening Charfield railway station, sprucing up Thornbury High Street and a heritage-led regeneration of Albion Dock in Bristol.
Mr Norris said: “It is pantomime season, but are the three unitary authorities really serious when it comes to tackling the climate emergency?
“Because, frankly, I’m dealing with the ‘Hokey Cokey three’ – not sure if they are in or out but clearly trying to shake something-or-other about.
“I’ve put the green recovery fund on the table for the third time and I have no interest in the latest ‘excuse of the month’ not to vote it through.
“In these newest political games, I’m being told that I have to agree to fund a list of other unrelated projects otherwise we can’t tackle the climate emergency.
“Tackling the climate emergency cannot be conditional on funding a fashion museum in Bath or pushing through changes to Thornbury High Street or funding the Albion Dock at the SS Great Britain project.
“This is like saying ‘I’ll agree to eat my Christmas dinner but only if I get every single present on my list to Santa first and I get to eat all the chocolate in my stocking right now – and by the way I’ll have a tantrum if my presents aren’t exactly the same value as his’.
“It is time to get out of the bad old ways of doing things that did not work.”
He said that by working together strategically, the region would get more money from the Government.
“The importance of the climate emergency cannot be a lever for blackmail or threats to get other pet projects through on the nod” Mr Norris said.
“Other spending projects may have great value, or not, but they need to be properly discussed in public in their own right.
“We must choose on merit, not behind closed doors doing secret deals, but openly in full public gaze.
“And the environment can never be made hostage to vanity projects within individual council areas.”
Cllr Savage said: “The projects tabled for investment are vital areas of work needed to power our journey towards meeting our ambition of delivering a net-zero West of England.
“In funding these projects, we’re making a commitment to deliver decarbonisation while developing a local economy around green skills and sustainable, inclusive growth.”
He said clarity on the schemes’ funding was needed “desperately”. “The green investment fund is a good idea, something we can all get behind, but not at the expense of costed-up and near-ready projects that will deliver positive contributions at pace to the region’s climate and economic ambitions,” Cllr Savage said.
Cllr Guy said: “We are pleased positive steps are now being taken to create a more focused programme of investment.
“We still need more detail on much of the proposed programme and I look forward to working with the metro mayor and the other authorities to transform our approach to tackling the climate and nature emergency.
“As COP26 demonstrated, we need a very different approach from this point if we are to make the impact needed to deal with the challenges we face.”
Mr Rees said: “Meeting the challenge of the climate and ecological emergencies we face requires positive collaboration across governments, regions and councils.
“The situation demands an approach where we have certainty in the level of investment available and where this money is going to be spent.
“We’ve made great strides locally to establish the effort needed to meet a net-zero ambition and have worked with our counterparts in the region to coordinate this work.
“I welcome the combined authority’s success in securing investment from Westminster and now look forward to working with them to deliver our shared ambition for a net-zero region at the forefront of a green, sustainable and inclusive economy.”