This morning I did an interview with Radio Bristol’s breakfast show on whether we should bring back Avon. It’s been suggested by a local business big-whig (the Labour supporting John Savage) that the four unitary councils should all be chopped and replaced by a super council that would be more efficient.
I’ve got some sympathy with this view. I was an Avon County Councillor in the three years before it was abolished by the Major government in 1996. Until then the county ran all the major services for almost a million people. It covered the whole greater Bristol economic region and planned transport and economic development. The six district councils such as Bristol and Wansdyke looked after local planning applications, collected the rubbish and ran leisure centres.
Since 1996 we’ve had the four “unitary” councils of Bristol, Bath & NE Somerset, South Gloucestershire and North Somerset. There are four sets of highly paid chief executives and heads of education, social services, planning, etc. Many are paid more than the Prime Minister. Then there’s the Avon Fire Authority, which used to overseen by the public protection committee of Avon council.
Personally – and I know I won’t be speaking for all of my Lib Dem colleagues in the West of England, I think abolishing Avon was a mistake. Replacing it by four new councils made that mistake worse. The administration by top officers is more expensive and the lack of political strategic oversight means that we’ve fallen way behind other city regions, most obviously in transport.
But I wouldn’t turn the clock back. I think Bath needs its own council – and could be joined by more of the historic county of Somerset. Similarly Weston Super Mare. But the city of Bristol has an absurdly truncated boundary. Travelling up Gloucester Road or Filton Avenue and you are suddenly welcomed to South Gloucestershire. The same happens in the east of the city. But we’re not out in green fields – we’re still in densely populated Bristol. Yet different sides of the same street might have their rubbish collected on different days and even have different recycling schemes.
Dear old First Bus runs services across the city boundary and doesn’t get regulated by any of the councils. The answer to this could be an Integrated Transport Authority across the 4 areas. I urged the last government to do this during Prime Minister’s questions. But it would only deal with some of the gaps in the strategic planning of the greater Bristol economy.
I think we need a new Bristol Council, covering Filton and Kingswood as well as the current city area. It will probably be hard to get a consensus on this – indeed my coalition colleague Chris Skidmore MP was on the radio with me taking the opposite view.
But our new government needs to save money and it wants a rejuvenation of local government. Empowering local communities, call it community politics or the big society, could start right here by giving us the democratic control over the area we all know as Bristol.
Finally, of course the remaining councils would have much scope to cooperate. A couple of months ago, with Liam Fox MP, I launched at a House of Commons reception a new branding for our area – the region of “Bristol & the West of England”….so at least we no longer need to talk of the county that used to be Avon.