South Gloucestershire councillors will consider a Labour move for a formal request for a referendum on the proposed West of England devolution deal when it meets next week, as the Minister responsible has ignored several approaches to allow one.
The devolution deal announced in the Budget in March – which would create a combined authority with a new metro mayor – does not require a referendum, unlike previous schemes to create mayors. Labour councillors believe that local people should have a direct say on such an important decision, but this is not in the rules.
A Labour attempt to push for an informal ballot to coincide with the EU referendum on 23rd June hit the buffers because Conservative Government rules on the EU referendum block any other poll on the same day. The Referendum Act gives the Minister responsible for these rules, Oliver Letwin, the power to allow a combined poll, but he has chosen not to do so.
Labour Group Leader Pat Rooney wrote to Mr Letwin back on 4th April calling on him to allow a poll, but he has not responded. Without this change the only option open to councils which want to conduct a poll is to run a completely separate ballot, but that would be prohibitively expensive.
Councillor Rooney has been informed by the Liberal Democrat and Conservative Group Leaders on the Council that they have also written to Mr Letwin in a similar vein and have also received no response.
Councillor Rooney says:
“Previous mayoral schemes have required approval through a ballot, and the West of England Metro Mayor proposal should not be exempt from that.
Labour locally suggested that councils should run an informal ballot to coincide with the EU referendum on 23rd June in order to minimise the cost, as people across the area will be going to vote anyway. Unfortunately the Government’s position is that this would have to be held separately. This would cause huge disruption and cost, and doubtless lead to a lower turnout.
Time is running out to arrange a poll before the Council has to take its decision on the deal at the end of June. I believe that a 23rd June ballot is our only opportunity for an indicative poll. As the Minister has ignored the cross-party requests for him to change the rules, Labour Group now feels forced to bring the matter to Council. We hope that Council next week will approve a formal resolution to urge the Minister to allow a combined poll at this late stage.
It does seem that the Government is intent on obstructing people from having a direct say on the creation of a combined authority with a metro mayor.”
The Council meeting is on Wednesday (18th) evening at Kingswood Civic Centre.