Combined authorities are hitting the headlines this year, but not always for the reasons you’d hope
In the FT yesterday there was a short piece on the new name of the combined authority in Merseyside, which is (deep breath): the Halton, Knowsley, Liverpool, St Helens, Sefton and Wirral Combined Authority. It was, as is probably self-evident, not very helpfully imposed by Whitehall because the local authorities could not agree on the name, although Whitehall is apparently happy if local authorities decide to use a ‘snappier’ title.
It’s not an ideal start for an organisation that is all about taking tough decisions across the local authorities. Nor is the suggestion that there has been friction about who will chair the organisation. The FT noted that although many business leaders wanted it to be Mayor of Liverpool Joe Anderson, it’s likely to be Wirral council leader Phil Davies.
It comes in the same week that, following on from public disputes in January over the structure of the Combined Authority and how it is going to be run, the North East Combined Authority has now been left off the list of so-called ‘super councils‘ because Sunderland will not agree to sign up until the Sunderland City Deal is signed. This is a real shame after the speed with which the North East pulled together following the Adonis Review, and given how close they have come to getting the Combined Authority.
The lack of a combined authority will put the North East at a disadvantage compared to counterparts in Sheffield, West Yorkshire and Liverpool where combined authorities are being formed, as well as Manchester where one already exists. Over the last 12 months as debates about devolution and decentralisation have increased, combined authorities look set to be increasingly important institutions to which power and funding can be devolved, as Centre for Cities will be discussing in a forthcoming report supported by Capita.
I’m not in any way underestimating the difficulties of forming these kinds of organisations. It’s no easy task to agree joint priorities which will involve all areas compromising to some degree. It’s also vital to ensure that the structure of the combined authority and arrangements for running it are workable, that they share power appropriately while having clear leadership, and that they will deliver a clear joint agenda that works for all the local areas. Nor is it unusual that you go through periods of ‘robust’ discussion (the old cliché of forming, storming, norming, conforming comes to mind).
But it is a problem that the disputes are being aired in public, as it simply plays into the hands of already sceptical Whitehall civil servants looking for reasons why local government cannot be given more powers, funding and autonomy.
Government needs institutions that are democratically and financially accountable if it is to push economic growth money down; it also needs to know that limited money will be spent effectively and based on a clear economic strategy. Combined authorities tick all these boxes, even more so than business-led Local Enterprise Partnerships which are not democratically accountable and not set up to receive public money. So having a combined authority that works, and is perceived to work, really matters.
There’s plenty of evidence that shows that local government can and already does handle greater powers, and that it would save money if it had more financial freedoms: just look at the way local government has handled the cuts. But public spats like this make it far more difficult to make the case for moving beyond the devolution we already have, through City Deals and Growth Deals, to a more significant level of devolved funding and freedom.
So what should the Merseyside authorities do now? I would suggest agree (behind closed doors) a name: like the Merseyside Combined Authority (or even better, though I know controversial, the Greater Liverpool Combined Authority, in keeping with the naming in Manchester and London) and tell everyone that’s what it’s called, as that’s what people will remember. And then they should make sure that they work out a leadership and committee structure that all the leaders can unite around.
Manchester provides one model for this. There the long-standing partnership of authorities has been led by Wigan rather than Manchester, with various local authorities leading on, or being involved in, the different sub-committees. Disputes have tended to be very much in private; in public, as one person described it to me, they “link arms and they’ll see off the world, shouting in unison about how great Greater Manchester is”. Public unity, as you can see from recent successes in Manchester, can go a long way.
There is nothing easy about bringing together multiple organisations, political leaders and geographies, all with their own histories. But I would predict that combined authorities will increasingly be a prize worth playing for, not just in this Government with the roll-out of City Deals and Growth Deals, but also in the years ahead as the debate about devolution and decentralisation continues.
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