Supercouncils: questions raised about new powers for England’s combined authorities

A year ago, Manchester began blazing a trail for devolution in England. Ten local authorities in the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) signed a deal with George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, for the transfer of powers in areas such as transport and skills from central to local government.

Since then, the English devolution bandwagon has picked up speed. After the general election in May, the newly-elected Conservative government introduced a Cities and Devolution Bill , creating a framework for the transfer of powers to the regions, and making provision for directly elected mayors.

During the summer, the Chancellor invited cities, towns and communities across the UK to submit their own devolution proposals, and by September 38 submissions had been received (including a number from Scotland and Wales).

Meanwhile, further deals have been announced, giving greater autonomy to local authorities in SheffieldCornwall, the North East of England and the Tees Valley. In November, two further deals were announced for the West Midlands and Liverpool.

 

As its momentum gathers pace, questions have arisen over the nature and implications of devolution for England’s cities and regions.

The devolution time frame

In October, a survey for Local Government Chronicle (LGC) highlighted concerns about the devolution timetable. 69% of the 45 chief executives and deputies responding to the survey indicated that the seven-week timeframe given to put a proposal together had been too tight. Of those councils which had not submitted a bid, 38% said they could not arrange a partnership with another authority, while 8% said they could not convince politicians in their area to agree.  However, the survey also indicated that 15% of councils were holding back on bids to see how other authorities fared first.

Accountability, transparency, public involvement

Some of the key governance issues surrounding devolution were considered in a report by the Centre for Public Scrutiny.

The report was critical of the secrecy of deal-making process, noting that details were only being released when agreements had been reached:

“Local people – anyone, indeed, not involved in the negotiations – need to understand what devolution priorities are being arrived at and agreed on. Increased public exposure in this process will lead to a more informed local debate. At the very least, the broad shape and principles of a bid for more devolved powers should be opened up to the public eye.”

The report argued that governance arrangements for the work that combined authority areas will be doing in future need to satisfy three conditions:

  • Accountability: decision-makers must clearly take responsibility, and engage with those seeking to hold them to account (non-executives, the public, and others)
  • Transparency: it must be clear (to professionals, elected councillors and the public) who is making decisions, on what, when, why and how
  • Involvement: a commitment to public involvement should be seen as central to good governance.

Directly elected mayors

In 2012, plans to replace local council cabinets with directly elected mayors were rejected by voters in nine English cities, including Manchester, Newcastle, Sheffield and Leeds.

However, the government has insisted that devolving powers to English regions is now conditional on the inclusion of directly elected mayors. In May the chancellor explained why he thought this was so important:

“It’s right people have a single point of accountability; someone they elect, who takes the decisions and carries the can. So with these new powers for cities must come new city-wide elected mayors who work with local councils. I will not impose this model on anyone. But nor will I settle for less.”

George Jones, Emeritus Professor of Government at the London School of Economics, has asserted that the concentration of power in one person is undesirable:

“…the advantage of collective leadership is it enables exploration of policy from different perspectives. Colleagues can consider possible impacts of policy in a variety of contexts, spotting pitfalls ahead and the consequences for different people and groups. A single person is unlikely to represent the diverse complexities of a large urban, metropolitan or county region area better than can collective leadership.”

The journey to greater autonomy for England’s regions has only just begun, but it’s already clear that the path to devolution will not be straightforward.

 

Read more about English devolution in our previous blogs:

Top down ‘devolution’ or a bold new era for local government? An update on the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill

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