Last week’s budget turned out to be an explosive affair for national politics, so it’s understandable that one announcement might have been overlooked, but for us in the West of England, it carried real significance.
The Chancellor said that our area would benefit from a deal which would deliver several elements: around a billion pounds to pay for infrastructure which will boost economic growth, multi-year transport budgets enabling the area to deliver more ambitious transport projects with greater certainty, responsibility for the new Adult Education Budget from 2018/19 helping to ensure adult skills provision meets the needs of local businesses and learners and enhanced powers to speed up the delivery of new housing.
So what’s the catch ? The price for the devolution deal is that we agree to the creation of an elected Mayor who will preside over the whole of the area covered by Bath and North East Somerset, Bristol, South Gloucestershire and North Somerset.
This is a condition which immediately raises hackles. Those with long memories fear a return to the days of Avon. Some have an instinctive reaction that it sounds like a Bristol takeover and must be resisted at all costs.
It is true there are voices who caution against being swept along into a sub-regional grouping. But the general consensus is that we should accept the deal on offer. People argue that not to do so would leave us at risk of becoming a second class economic force, estranged from the powers that central Government is offering.
We don’t want to find ourselves in the position of peering over the fence to see developments going on elsewhere and we can’t warm ourselves or pay the bills dressed only in the cloak of independence.
I can understand why people will view the deal with scepticism. However, one thing is abundantly clear. This is the only game in town. If we turn it down, we will be in danger of being left behind our neighbours. We will potentially lose jobs and inward investment which will affect the whole community. We have nothing to fear from Bristol – they need us as much as we need them.
When our Councillors meet to decide whether to sign up to the deal or not, let us encourage them to act with courage, safe in the knowledge that we fully support them in making the right decision which will protect the long term economic interests of all the people in Bath and North East Somerset.