The future is Intercommunality – yes, but with whom?

Chris Game

Rom com/date movies aren’t really my thing, so my excuse for watching the recent Words and Pictures was that I was a captive plane passenger – and that the ever-watchable Juliette Binoche was playing a rheumatoid arthritic abstract painter and prep school art teacher. The title refers to the silly challenge she charily accepts from alcoholic poet turned plagiarising English teacher, Clive Owen, to ‘prove’ whether Words or Pictures are more meaningful.

One of the Owen character’s numerous obnoxious ways of irritating colleagues is with his show-off polysyllable game: I’ll give you a five-syllable word, you give me one of six syllables, etc. Binoche, at least initially, won’t play, which, while entirely understandable, I personally found slightly disappointing, as I could SO have helped her.

For starters, I know that the seven-syllable word most frequently used conversationally was calculated (don’t ask!) to be, not homosexuality, which was one of the commoner guesses, but telecommunication – followed pleasingly by the one that describes INLOGOV: interdisciplinary. In the near future, though, it will surely be intercommunality – at least in local government conversations, most of which currently seem focused on Combined Authorities (CAs).

At present, we have just five: Greater Manchester, very much first off the blocks in 2010/11, followed earlier this year by West Yorkshire, Liverpool and Sheffield City Regions, and the North-East. But over the past fortnight alone, quite apart from the general ‘Please sir, can we have some of whatever Scotland’s getting’ pleas, we’ve had almost daily reports of CA discussions – among five Tees Valley councils, all 14 in Lancashire, some or many in Hampshire, six in West London, and four (or maybe five, six, or more) in the West Midlands, all seeking, through the formation of CAs, to grab some of the devolution goodies that Greater Manchester negotiated with George Osborne in exchange for a directly elected metro-mayor.

Of course, only in the UK could it possibly be deemed nationally newsworthy that a number of contiguous local authorities were thinking of working together in the interests of more efficient service delivery. I’m no specialist, but even I recall back in 2007 a whole book of country case studies of Inter-Municipal Co-operation in Europe (ed. by Hulst & van Montfort), demonstrating what a widespread phenomenon it had become in much, if not most, of Europe.

One reason I recall it is that it appeared around the same time as an article by Josie Kelly (Aston U) entitled ‘The Curious Absence of Inter-municipal Co-operation in England’ – a curiosity, I felt, that evaporated quite quickly, once you considered surely the single most basic explanation: namely, the structure and sheer scale of our local government.

With that in mind, let me start this brief backstory with a few figures on scale. England’s population is 54 million, and we have 326 unitary or lower-tier district authorities, with an average population of 165,000. The equivalents in France, population 66 million, are 36,700 lower-tier communes, average population 1,800.

Most communes date back to the 1789 Revolution, and the French are very attached to them – voting for their councillors and mayors in roughly twice the numbers we do. Successive Presidents tell them this ‘millefeuille’ structure of micro-communes is outdated, inefficient and must be reformed, but French citizens care more than us and they resist. No enforced mergers, humongous ‘local’ authorities, arbitrary boundary lines on maps, and meaningless council names for them.

So, French governments were forced to develop a compromise: intercommunal cooperation. By a mix of threats and incentives, communes were persuaded to group themselves into some 2,500 cooperative communities of varying shapes and sizes.

Biggest, most integrated, and with most powers and fiscal autonomy, are 16 urban communities (communautés urbaines) for the largest metropolitan areas. Smaller urban areas have communautés d’agglomération, and rural areas, without an urban core of 15,000 residents, have communautés de communes, which account for the great majority of the total.

With its ultra-local communal structure, France’s network of inter-municipal co-operation is one of Europe’s most extensive. But Spain has its mancomunidades (municipal associations), Italy its Unioni di Comuni (municipal unions), Germany Zweckverbände, and so on. As in so many things European, it is we who are the real exceptions. England’s enormous and largely self-sufficient local authorities, and their minimal responsibility for what in many countries are still public utilities, mean that our insularity has extended to a near absence of formal inter-municipal co-operation.

But the future, we’re told, will be different. The future is partnership working in general, and Combined Authority intercommunality in particular – which is fine, unless you happen to live, as I do, in Birmingham. First, you find you’ve missed out on the possibility of living in a regional Powerhouse, like a good chunk of ‘the North’ apparently will be. And second, it’s far from clear exactly who, when the music stops, we’ll be communing with.

Our problem, as ever, is Manchester. I had occasion last year to puncture its pretensions to be ‘Britain’s second city’ but now, it seems, it’s become English government’s José Mourinho, the special one. Worse, like Chelsea’s manager, it not only has a powerful and supportive backer, but is also pretty smart itself.

That smartness was seen in the city council’s being first to utilise Labour’s 2009 Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act by orchestrating the creation of a Greater Manchester Combined Authority. The Act’s chief purpose was to set up local authority leaders’ boards to replace the abolished Regional Chambers, but it also provided for the creation of combined authorities covering multiple, contiguous local authority areas. In fact, the GMCA recreated the Thatcher-abolished 10-borough Metropolitan Council, by pooling newly devolved powers on public transport, skills, housing, regeneration, waste management, carbon neutrality and planning permission.

Though conceived under Labour, the GMCA’s establishment dates from 2011 and, perhaps surprisingly for an invariably Labour-dominated body, its principal backers have been Coalition ministers and most notably northern MP and Chancellor, George Osborne. Manchester especially has consistently opposed elected mayors, the Government’s proclaimed condition for further devolution. Nevertheless, it was the GMCA’s 2012 City Deal that included a ground-breaking ‘earn back’ tax provision, enabling it to recoup annually from government up to £30 million from increased business rates for reinvestment in a revolving infrastructure fund.

None of the other seven 2012 City Deals – even Liverpool’s, announced on the very day the city council took the decision itself to have an elected mayor – were as expansive, and the reason seemed inescapable. Though called City Deals, ministers had to negotiate any regional dimension they involved, not with a statutorily based, politically led, service-delivering CA, but with Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) – voluntary, business-led, minimally resourced alliances of councils and businesses that help coordinate local economic development. More than talking shops, but not serious intercommunality.

You didn’t need a weatherman to know the wind direction. City-based LEPs, particularly where wholly or largely coterminous with a former metropolitan county, began negotiating for CAs, and, as noted above, there are now four more, leaving the West Midlands as the only ex-met county without one. Meanwhile, both major parties claim to see CAs, rather than ever larger merged councils, as the best vehicles to implement their vague, fluctuating, but still important devolution plans. For the present, though, the dealer’s chair is still occupied by George Osborne – yes, this is definitely Treasury, not DCLG, stuff – and first bidder for the next wave of devolution deals was once again Greater Manchester.

This time a price tag came with the Chancellor’s ‘Northern Powerhouse’ deal – a required and reluctantly agreed directly elected metropolitan mayor. The £1 billion of devolved funding and services s/he will share with the CA, while unremarkable in many EU countries, constitutes a big deal here, and everyone else desperately wants one too. The problem is that not everyone has Greater Manchester’s nicely polycentric coherence – seven of its nine surrounding boroughs sharing borders with the core city; or its unambiguous identity, its established record of intercommunal cooperation, and, above all, its undisputed name.

Demonstrably, the West Midlands doesn’t, which is why the recent stream of feverish announcements from local council leaders has seemed half-baked, unconvincing, and – who knows? – even potentially self-defeating. First, a West Midlands CA of Birmingham and the four Black Country boroughs (Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall, Wolverhampton – all Labour), with Coventry (Labour) an unsigned probable, but Solihull (Conservative, and Coventry’s only contiguous borough) an unsigned reluctant, which raises questions at the very least about an integrated transport policy.

Then, there are the Worcestershire and Staffordshire districts in the Birmingham/Solihull LEP and those in Coventry/Warwickshire LEP – apparently, they’re maybes or haven’t-yet-been-askeds. An elected mayor, twice rejected by Birmingham, is an unmentionable, and as for the name – the obvious but toxic Greater Birmingham? West Midlands? Birmingham City Region? Mercia?? Nobody is keener than I on the devolution of significant powers and fiscal discretions to our cities and city regions, but even I would take some convincing about somewhere that couldn’t make up its collective mind on its area, composition, name or form of governance.

gameChris Game is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.

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