Council leaders’ leaked letter reveals feud with WECA mayor

  Posted: 13.10.21 at 12:00 by By Local Democracy Reporter Adam Postans

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A leaked letter penned by the region’s four council leaders has revealed an astonishing power struggle with metro mayor Dan Norris, with explosive claims that recent decisions may be “unlawful”.

The correspondence, signed by the elected heads of Bristol, South Gloucestershire, Bath & North East Somerset and North Somerset councils, accused Mr Norris of exercising a power of veto at last month’s West of England joint committee that he is not entitled to.

An accompanying note agreed by all four local authorities’ monitoring officers, who provide legal advice, says this would “arguably amount to maladministration” and that the decisions could even be challenged in court because they went beyond the committee’s authority.

It also suggests the leaders could circumvent the metro mayor and draw up their own alternative budget for the West of England Combined Authority (Weca).

The letter, a direct challenge to Mr Norris’s authority, was sent to the chairmen of Weca’s overview & scrutiny and audit committees on Monday, October 11, and has been obtained by the Local Democracy Reporting Service.

Asked for a response, the West of England mayor said: “My priorities are protecting people’s jobs, tackling the climate emergency and bringing more powers, resources and cash to the West of England.

One of the signatories : Don Davies. Photo by Stephen Sumner. Permission for use by all partners.

“I’m interested in policy, not process. We have limited time and need focus on bold and ambitious regional plans that will put us on the national and global map.”

The letter follows a chaotic meeting in September of the main Weca committee – comprising Mr Norris, fellow Labour mayor of Bristol Marvin Rees, South Gloucestershire leader Conservative Cllr Toby Savage and B&NES leader Lib Dem Cllr Kevin Guy, plus North Somerset’s independent leader Cllr Don Davies who has a vote on the West of England joint committee but not Weca committee, with both meetings confusingly taking place together.

Members failed to agree several key decisions, with Cllrs Savage and Davies questioning Mr Norris’s right to veto alternative proposals – officially called amendments to motions – to the joint committee, only to be told that legal advice had been taken minutes beforehand which confirmed the mayor could do that.

Now, though, the four councils are formally challenging this.

The leaders say in the letter: “The agreed view of our monitoring officers is that the legal advice the mayor and joint committee members received concerning voting arrangements of the joint committee is not correct.

“That advice was not shared at the time with the UAs [unitary authorities], and was based on a very brief and urgent instruction and did not have full regard to the wider voting arrangements that apply to the joint committee.”

The monitoring officers’ briefing note highlights sections of Weca’s constitution that suggest the West of England mayor does not have a veto on the joint committee and that the only veto power actually lies with a member where the “business being transacted relates to only one single unitary authority area”.

Their note says it is possible that recent joint committee decisions have been made “other than in accordance with” these voting arrangements.

“On the face of it that would arguably amount to maladministration,” it says.

“However, it is also possible that decisions have been taken which are outside the explicit delegation of functions to the joint committee.

“Any decisions that are taken by the joint committee which are outside of its terms of reference would be ultra vires [beyond its legal powers and authority] and open to challenge by way of judicial review.”

The note says that “given the lack of transparency” over Weca budget-setting processes, the council leaders could exercise their right under 2017 combined authorities finance legislation to “consider the option for an alternative budget”.

“Preparatory work would need to be started now,” it says.

In their letter, the four leaders repeat their demands for a governance review of the combined authority, which would look at how it operates and functions and whether changes are needed.

Mr Norris has resisted these since he was elected in May, insisting he is focused instead on getting more money into the region from government and ensuring a green recovery which creates jobs and tackles climate change.

The monitoring officers’ note says a review of the joint committee’s agenda-setting needed to be considered to “provide greater transparency around decision-making”.

“This would also reduce the risk of decisions being taken which are unlawful and which may be challenged,” it says, adding that a further step should be taken to determine if the joint committee should even have a role at all.

Mr Norris said: “My priorities are protecting people’s jobs, tackling the climate emergency and bringing more powers, resources and cash to the West of England. Experience shows we won’t do that with more of the old failed model of the last four years.

“The West of England needs a much more strategic approach on things like transport and the environment.

“This is required by government and we ignore that at our peril. I will not be divvying up everything three ways as in the past for an easy life, or pleasing everyone all of the time.

“This has not worked for us in the past, as shown when we compare ourselves with other regions.

“I’m about getting much more money for our region. That requires strategic working that is ambitious and bold that will persuade government to part with the huge amounts of cash our great region needs.

“Frankly, we can’t keep worrying about which individual council has got what share compared to the others. This approach will fail us in the future as it has failed us before.

“Under the previous metro mayor we did not secure a single penny piece more than the government would have given us anyway.

“What our region needs is a bigger overall pie – much more money overall. That will only be possible by a new strategic approach.

“I’m interested in policy, not process. We have limited time and need focus on bold and ambitious regional plans that will put us on the national and global map.”

The leaders’ letter was mentioned only briefly at the start of Weca overview and scrutiny committee at Bath Guildhall on Monday, October 11, when chairman Cllr Winston Duguid said members would agree to meet with the leaders as requested followed by a meeting with Mr Norris and Weca chief executive Patricia Greer.

A combined meeting of the Weca committee and joint committee takes place at Bristol City Hall on Friday (October 15).

The letter in full:

Dear Winston [Duguid] and Geoff [Gollop],

We are writing to you as the Chairs of OSM [overview & scrutiny management committee] and Audit Committee for the WECA Committee and Joint Committee to reiterate our concerns regarding the governance arrangements of the Combined Authority and Joint Committee. We are of course aware that Scrutiny has already called for a governance review, and we would like to work with you in taking this forward.

As you will know, recent decision making at the meetings of Combined Authority and Joint

Committee has been challenging as proposals have not been developed in collaboration with Unitary Authorities. This must be addressed if the CA is to deliver the key projects which are vitally important to supporting our residents and businesses in the region.

The Combined Authority was set up to enable the three local authority areas to come together more formally, elect a Mayor and co-invest in our region. WECA is not a standalone entity – it is made up of its constituent councils.

Most decisions taken by the WECA Committee, or delegated to WECA and partner officers, are taken collectively by the Mayor and the constituent member councils and may need tandem decisions to be made within relevant Council or Cabinet meetings (or by Executive Members). An all-encompassing culture of partnership working and co-production is paramount to the success and added-value that the Combined Authority governance can bring.

We have attached a ‘pre-governance’ report which has been compiled by the three constituent members of the West of England Combined Authority (WECA). The report reflects on the first four years of West of England devolution and makes a series of recommendations for collective and collaborative adoption by all parties. The report calls for a formal extended review of governance and it calls for a commitment to collaboration and co-production over the next four years that will raise the profile of the West of England and expedite delivery.

As Leaders we are keen to establish a culture of trust within the Combined Authority where we can develop shared objectives, shared key messages and ensure that governance processes exist to maximise collaborative strategic discussion and delivery; and minimise bureaucracy.

In addition, we have concerns regarding the governance of the Joint Committee – particularly concerning voting arrangements.

You may recall that when the Joint Committee last met in September we were faced with the [un]usual situation of WECA Mayor effectively using a ‘veto’ to block an amendment to a motion of the Joint Committee. We have attached a briefing note that has been agreed by Monitoring Officers at Bristol City Council, South Gloucestershire Council, Bath and North East Somerset Council and North Somerset Council detailing the voting arrangements of the Joint Committee.

The agreed view of our Monitoring Officers is that the legal advice the Mayor and Joint Committee members received concerning voting arrangements of the Joint Committee is not correct. That advice was not shared at the time with the UAs, and was based on a very brief and urgent instruction and did not have full regard to the wider voting arrangements that apply to the Joint Committee.

We are keen to meet with you and scrutiny members so that we can discuss these concerns and agree next steps for undertaking a full governance review of the Combined Authority and Joint Committee as soon as possible so that we can focus on delivering the projects that matter to our region.

Yours sincerely

Cllr Kevin Guy (Leader Bath & North East Somerset Council)

Cllr Toby Savage (Leader South Gloucestershire Council)

Mayor Marvin Rees (Bristol City Council)

Cllr Don Davies (Leader North Somerset Council)

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