A bunch of local politicians whose squabbling could risk losing millions of pounds for the region have promised to try to get along better after being ordered to in a damning auditors’ report. The leaders of the West of England Combined Authority (Weca), headed by Labour metro mayor Dan Norris, approved an action plan to improve “strained relationships” following a series of high-profile bust-ups, name-calling and even a committee meeting boycott over the last 18 months.
It comes after finance watchdogs Grant Thornton found five “significant weaknesses” in the organisation’s value-for-money arrangements and made three statutory recommendations, which are the most serious that can be applied to a public body and must be addressed urgently. But even as the Weca committee, comprising Mr Norris and the leaders of the three councils that make up the combined authority – Bristol, South Gloucestershire and Bath & North East Somerset – agreed the steps to stop fighting and “play nicely”, there was division over how the action plan came about.
And it took two attempts for them to agree at all after their last meeting in November, where the measures should have been adopted, was abandoned after just six minutes because the three local authority heads were not happy with Weca’s response and demanded more details. At the latest committee on Friday, December 9, B&NES Council deputy leader Lib Dem Cllr Richard Samuel said the plan, committing leaders and senior officers to cooperate better, was only agreed after a flurry of emails “flying around” in the days before the meeting.
He said it had not been published beforehand, which should be standard practice to ensure openness and accountability of councillors’ decisions. Cllr Samuel said: “This is not the way to do business. The idea that there are other discussions taking place or other paperwork that exists is not acceptable.”
Members did, however, approve the action plan unanimously, which includes “free and frank discussion” among leaders on regional priorities, committee members being involved earlier in decision-making, a new Weca senior management structure and a peer challenge. Mr Norris told the meeting: “We are going to try to cooperate better.
“I recognise the importance of the report. The West of England Combined Authority is bringing in resources and I am proud that the two-thirds of a billion pounds-plus secured in the last year for the benefit of local people shows the combined authority is working, but there is much work to do on delivery.
“We will never agree on everything. We are, after all, politicians with deeply held beliefs, but we have a shared ambition in getting the best for our amazing region. I have never believed in deals in smoke-filled rooms or out of sight of the public.”
The West of England mayor said the value-for-money report on governance covered April 1, 2020, to March 31 last year. Mr Norris said: “That period is actually prior to me getting elected in May last year, so it covers a period significantly before I took over.”
Grant Thornton partner Jon Roberts replied that the audit could consider issues and evidence after that period, which was in the report, but that he was reassured by the improved action plan. South Gloucestershire Council leader Conservative Cllr Toby Savage said the lack of collaboration among the politicians and top officers was the reason relationships were so strained and why auditors had found a “culture of distrust”.
Bristol City Council cabinet member Labour Cllr Kye Dudd said: “I welcome the progress made in developing a more meaningful action plan than was originally presented. It is vital we make progress in responding to the statutory recommendations and take these very seriously.
“It is a recognition that while processes and procedures need to be improved, so does our working culture, relationships and behaviours. You can get the best governance model in the world but it will only work if everybody commits to engaging with each other in good faith, with respect and in the spirit of finding solutions.
“‘Compromise’ should not be a dirty word when it comes to the combined authority.” The report said: “The presence of such a large number of significant governance weakness is a major concern.
“The poor state of professional relationships between the combined authority mayor and the representatives of the other members of the combined authority, and between some chief officers, reflect a significant weakness in partnership governance. We are concerned that the ongoing poor state of relationships could start to limit the ability to work together to optimise strategic opportunities in future.
“External perceptions of dysfunction could also begin to affect the reputation of the combined authority with central government and other partners, ultimately affecting the ability to raise further funding and undermining public confidence. The level of collaboration and consultation on proposals put forward to [Weca] committee has been poor.
“Proposals have been presented to members as complete for decision, with little or no attempt to seek views or reach consensus.” Grant Thornton issued statutory recommendations to just six out of the 180 public bodies it audited last year.
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