At the first of a series of workshops hosted in early November by the College of Social Sciences at the University of Birmingham, with input from INLOGOV, The Public Services Academy and City-REDI, practitioners and academics from the world of local government came together to share experiences on the current combined authorities and city-region devolution agenda. In the first of a series of posts Max Lempriere, a doctoral researcher studying the formation of combined authorities, reflects on the day’s major talking points.
Combined authorities are emerging as the arrangement of choice for local authorities across England keen to harness greater powers and funding from central government. Five have so far been established with another six in the pipeline. More will follow in the coming months and years.
One of the clearest challenges coming out of our discussion is that there is no ‘blueprint’ to follow in their design. It is up to each prospective combined authority to ‘bid’ for a package of powers and funding that reflects local needs and priorities in negotiation with central government. But what does this mean for those on the ground involved in those deliberations?
Underlying much of the discussion was an optimism that this kind of flexibility presents. One participant remarked ‘if the rules aren’t written, you can write your own’. But, accompanying this was also a frustration at the ambiguity and uncertainty that accompanies this kind of design flexibility. The need to ensure public value, a resilient institutional arrangement and a design that can achieve specific foundational objectives certainly raises the stakes.
Take the issue of elected-mayors. Agreeing to adopt an elected mayor is a necessary condition to achieving the full range of powers and funding available, but again there is flexibility in terms of what powers and competencies the mayor will have. If nothing else the mayor will become the figurehead of the combined authority, so a lot rests on ensuring their success.
There is a danger that if not carefully thought through the ‘mayor issue’ could undermine the success or resilience of the combined authority. A functional economic geography may be an appropriate basis from which local authorities can come together but the congruence of economic and political geographies is not a given. Participants agreed that the powers and ‘design’ of the mayoralty must be carefully negotiated to reflect local identities, political priorities and political geographies. Take the West Midlands, for example. Here the development of a combined authority has to navigate the deep historical tensions between Birmingham, the Black Country, and Solihull/Coventry. Would a mayor be able to negotiate these differences? Would any attempts to do so be met with hostility and, if so, what would that mean for the legitimacy of the mayor? Several participants at our workshop were concerned that if the mayor was to be seen as ineffective there is a danger that the whole combined authority could be at stake.
So what does this mean for combined authority designers? The most obvious conclusion is that local authorities need to be leading the discussions, not central government. In the words of one participant, local authorities need to be ‘feisty’ in their negotiations and unafraid to ‘flex their muscles’. There isn’t a comprehensive deal without an elected mayor and there isn’t a combined authority without an effective mayor. How the mayor is presented, engaged with and positioned within the combined authority is more fluid and contingent than a set of formal powers suggests. Combined authorities should not rest on their laurels and assume that just because their mayor ‘works’ today it will do so tomorrow.
So should we write off their potential? Far from it! There are real, tangible opportunities to seize back control from central government. Everyone involved must be sensitive to both the enormous opportunities this presents but also the potential pitfalls of flexible, negotiable institutional design.
This series of workshops is being supported by the Economic and Social Research Council, Local Government Association and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE) and is led by Catherine Staite, Director of INLOGOV and SOLACE’s Research Facilitator for Local Government.
Max Lempriere is a final year PhD researcher at the University of Birmingham. His research interests include flexible institutional design, local government policy making, the politics of sustainable planning and construction and ecological modernisation.