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WECA: Emails reveal tensions

WECA: Emails reveal tensions

outh Gloucestershire Council leader Cllr Toby Savage (Image: South Gloucestershire Conservatives)

A £50million green recovery plan for the region should finally be approved at the third attempt this Friday – if the political leaders turn up this time and can agree.

But even before the West of England Combined Authority (Weca) committee meets, or doesn’t, new leaked emails have revealed ongoing tensions between metro mayor Dan Norris and council leaders.

They show Labour’s Mr Norris called off the usual private pre-meeting between the politicians to agree the committee’s agenda because he was worried it would only make matters worse, to the dismay of South Gloucestershire Council leader Cllr Toby Savage.

It follows a turbulent few months that have exposed a major rift which became apparent in September when the regional mayor vetoed proposals backed by the other leaders at joint committee, which is Weca plus North Somerset Council.

It left several decisions up in the air, including a Weca green recovery plan, for retrofitting homes and installing electric vehicle charging points, which was deemed not ambitious enough.

Bristol’s Labour mayor Marvin Rees, Bath & North East Somerset Council leader Lib Dem Cllr Kevin Guy, Conservative Cllr Savage and North Somerset Council independent leader Cllr Don Davies then boycotted the next meeting in October insisting Mr Norris 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 in decisions involving North Somerset following new legal advice.

That followed the appointment of UWE vice-chancellor and former Local Enterprise Partnership chairman Professor Steve West as a troubleshooter to try to break the deadlock.

But in an email to Cllr Savage on November 18, seen by the Local Democracy Reporting Service, Mr Norris cancelled the Weca committee draft agenda meeting to let Prof West “get on with his efforts to work with us on the challenges we face”.

He wrote: “It seems prudent to prevent any future potential flashpoints in order for him to execute this as straightforwardly as possible.

“Our meetings have heightened tensions so far. As a result, I will not convene a pre-meeting with mayors and leaders.

“I hope you agree that for Steve West’s work to get off to a good start, the temperature should be falling rather than rising right now.”

Cllr Savage replied: “I would strongly disagree that Steve’s potential role is justification for abandoning draft agenda meetings which do provide an opportunity to all come together to discuss the draft reports and refine them ahead of formal publication.

“I would say a lot of our recent difficulties have been because we don’t meet often enough – too many opportunities to collectively discuss how we can work together to achieve our shared regional objectives are cancelled by you, often at short notice.

“There is enormous risk in proceeding with December 3 Weca committee meeting without an opportunity to co-produce the decision reports.

“This approach effectively removes the word ‘combined’ from Weca. Please can you reconsider?”

Both men declined to comment further.

But in a press release last week, Mr Norris, who insists the same tensions exist at combined authorities across the country, said he was optimistic that the council leaders would turn up and vote through the green recovery plan.

He said: “It’s time for deeds, not just words now. Post COP26 it is even more urgent that we vote through the West of England green recovery plan as we need to get moving if we want the region to meet our net-zero targets.

“Keen watchers of the combined authority will know this is not the first time I have introduced this important green initiative but I’m optimistic it will be third time lucky.

“Our region can be justly proud of its globally leading concern for the environment.

“Our people are way ahead of the politicians when it comes to the planet, but any further delay to the green recovery plan will risk damaging all the good work the region’s already done.”

Mr Norris said he had juggled budgets since the other leaders asked at the September meeting for the original £20million plan to be more ambitious.

If agreed it will now set up a £50million fund beginning with £30million for initial priorities with the aim of “leveraging” in more money.

The leaders would then also vote on a report following the Chancellor’s budget and spending review to allocate £200,000 to train heat pump installers and ensure the region can benefit from the Government’s recently announced boiler upgrade scheme.

North Somerset Council’s leader will not be at Friday’s meeting because it is the Weca committee only, not the West of England joint committee which is set to meet separately on December 17.

Words: Adam Postans, Local Democracy Reporter

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