The Labour Leaders on the four West of England councils have written to a Government Minister calling on him to change Government rules that will otherwise deny people from having a direct vote on the introduction of a combined authority with a metro mayor, and are asking local MPs and council political leaders to back their call.
The Conservative Government announced a devolution deal for the West of England in the Budget this month, but its acceptance is not dependent on a public referendum. Now Labour’s attempt to push for an informal ballot to coincide with the EU referendum on 23rd June has hit the buffers as Conservative legislation on the referendum is blocking this.
The Labour Leaders stress that they support the principle of devolving power and resources from central government to local decision-makers, but that local people should have a direct vote on something as major as the creation of a combined authority with a metro mayor.
The European Union Referendum Act 2015 gives the Tory Minister the power to regulate to allow other polls on referendum day, but the Government “have indicated that they don’t intend to make any provision to enable the combination of the poll at the referendum with the poll at any other electoral event”, according to official guidance from the Electoral Commission.
The Labour Leaders have therefore written to the Minister, Oliver Letwin, to ask him to change the decision and allow a devolution deal ballot. 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.
In their joint statement, Councillors Robin Moss (Bath & North East Somerset), Helen Holland (Bristol City), Richard Tucker (North Somerset) and Pat Rooney (South Gloucestershire) say:
“The Government seems intent on obstructing people from having a direct say on the creation of a combined authority with a metro mayor. Previous mayoral schemes have required approval through a ballot, but the new rules specifically exclude this provision.
Now we discover that Government rules also prevent a vote being held to coincide with the EU referendum on 23rd June when people across the area will be going to vote anyway. We suggested this date to minimise the cost but the Government’s position is that an informal referendum would have to be held separately. This would cause huge disruption and cost, and doubtless a lower turnout.
There is usually a push to combine elections to save money and voters are used to being given several ballot papers, so this decision is perverse. It will actively obstruct a public vote on the devolution deal.
We believe that a 23rd June ballot is the only affordable option for a devolution referendum, so we have written to the Minister to call on him to regulate to allow a combined poll, which is in his power under the Referendum Act.
We urge the other political group leaders on each of our councils to endorse our call for a referendum, and will be writing to the local MPs to ask them to lobby the Minister to make the necessary change.”
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The letter is reproduced below: