Combined Authorities and Del Boy Devolution

Chris Game

It was quicker than a full-term pregnancy. In late January, less than nine months after the General Election, the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act (CLGDA) received its Royal Proclamation – sorry, Assent. By which time eight bonny ‘devolution deals’ had already been hatched out into the local government world.

For the record and terminological clarity, these comprise the five established Combined Authorities (CAs) – Greater Manchester, Sheffield and Liverpool City Regions, West Yorkshire, and North East – the announced West Midlands and Tees Valley CAs, plus unitary Cornwall’s non-CA deal. All but West Yorkshire and Cornwall are elected mayor-based. An eighth proposed CA, North Midlands – Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire – could be said to be experiencing Labour pains, since one reported cause of its delayed confirmation was local Conservative MPs’ concern that the two Labour-inclined counties could elect the wrong kind of mayor.

Had these devo deals been babies, suspicious relatives might have been making legitimacy checks by counting the weeks. Here, though, the concern is less legitimacy than motive. Was all this haste confirmation of the Government’s, and particularly Chancellor George Osborne’s, genuine commitment to overthrowing “the old, broken model of trying to run everything in our country from the centre of London”? Or/and something else?

The Commons Communities & Local Government Committee, while welcoming the principle of the Government’s ‘bespoke’ approach to devolution, wasn’t convinced of either its commitment or capacity to deliver. It judged the policy so far to have been rushed, politically driven, and lacking in direction, rigour, assessable outcomes, and democratic or public engagement. The Institute for Government (p.9) was similarly critical: a compressed and “opaque proposal and negotiation process …”, comprising “unspoken expectations … [and] unwritten rules”.

Neither review, though, noted more than in passing the question that’s increasingly preoccupied the local government world for the past several not months, but years: is the real agenda behind much of this devolution stuff reorganisation or unitarisation by stealth? About doing covertly what Sir Eric Pickles denied himself overtly as Communities Secretary with his 2008 promise to shoot with his pearl-handled revolver the first civil servant proposing local government reorqanisation? It was there in the original Bill but largely overlooked, then boosted by one of several late Government amendments. Now, it seems, any erstwhile stealth has been supplanted by something resembling Del Boy Devolution.

Various INLOGOV colleagues have commented in these columns on aspects of the Government’s devolution policy virtually since the CLGDA’s conception (and that really is the last outing for this metaphor). It’s an appropriate moment, therefore, for an update, focusing particularly on some of those late and under-reported changes during the Bill’s parliamentary progress.

First, though, a bullet-point summary of what is an essentially enabling Act, whose main legislative function is to amend and extend the 2009 Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act (LDEDCA) that introduced CAs. With little reference to the content to the ‘devolution deals’ that are its chief product, the CLGDA’s core provisions relating to CAs:

  • empower the Secretary of State (SoS) to create mayoral CAs with a directly elected  Mayor who will chair the CA and may, with the SoS’s approval, raise a precept on constituent authorities’ council tax bills;
  • extend CAs’ limited remit of economic development, regeneration and transport to include any local government function, including health service functions;
  • remove CAs’ boundary restrictions prohibiting non-contiguous or doughnut- shaped areas;
  • empower the SoS to require the mayor to exercise specified functions individually, including those of the Police and Crime Commissioner;
  • empower the SoS to transfer to mayoral CAs the functions of other public authorities in the CA’s area, including government departments, but not county or district councils; also to confer on a CA the general power of competence;
  • require CAs to appoint audit and overview and scrutiny committees.

It’s hard to believe that, without the apparently irresistible rhyme, even George Osborne would have dared label as a ‘Devolution Revolution’ a package involving minimal fiscal devolution, no subsidiarity presumption, and no formula for lastingly rebalancing the relationship between central and local government. Certainly, the recurring ‘empower the SoS’ mantra in the bullet-point summary makes it manifest who in the first instance is the chief enablee here. This is a top-down, Osborne-controlled, ministerially managed devolution – or ‘Treasury Power Grab’, as Jim McMahon, Oldham’s new MP, former council leader and Northern Powerhouse architect, described it in his recent maiden speech (Jan 19, Col. 1369).

But that’s not the main point in this particular blog, which is more about the legislation’s footnotes. As summarised above, the Act’s key provisions read much as they did in the original Bill – though not necessarily the same as in interim versions. The required elected mayor was critics’ main target throughout, and, perhaps distractingly for those rushing to prepare devolution bids, from July onwards (within days of Cornwall’s non-mayoral deal being announced) the Bill contained a Lords amendment overruling the requirement that an elected mayor be a precondition for the transfer of functions to a CA.

In December, predictably enough, the requirement was restored by the Commons, and indeed strengthened. Notwithstanding the arguments of the LGA (p.17) and others that an elected mayor is not the only, or invariably the most effective, accountability model available, the amendment would, claimed ministers, risk jeopardising the Greater Manchester and Sheffield deals already negotiated. Besides which, it was in the Conservative manifesto, and thus merited strengthening. The SoS’s power to require an existing CA to adopt an elected mayor and remove a dissenting council now allows such an order to be made when more than just one council dissents, provided two constituent councils plus the CA do consent. As we’ll see again shortly, consent is not a big thing with this Government.

There’s a rambly bit in St Matthew’s gospel that struck me as relevant here. After warning about false prophets and wolves in sheep’s clothing, it switches to bad trees not bearing good fruit – and therefore “by their fruits ye shall know them”. Here, I’d suggest that “by their late amendments ye shall know them”.

There was an exceptional number – 87 Government amendments alone considered by the Lords on Jan 12 (Col. 139) – partly due presumably to the speed of the Bill’s drafting and partly to its being sent to the Lords first. Many were uncontentious drafting changes – but most of the substantive ones, like elected mayors, took the form of restoring the status quo ante, the Government’s Commons majority having now rejected an earlier Lords amendment.

There was the odd conciliatory concession, like agreeing to the SoS providing annual reports to Parliament detailing devolution progress in all areas of England – harmless enough, with the information presumably already in the public domain. But anything conceivably problematic – requiring all Government Bills to include a ‘devolution statement’ that they are consistent with the principle of devolving power to the most appropriate level, or removing the SoS’s discretion in assigning CAs the general power of competence, or reducing the voting age for local government elections from 18 to 16 – forget it.

Which brings us to reorganisation. There were two relevant clauses in the original Bill, neither initially attracting great attention. One streamlined the procedure for creating a CA or amending the structure of an existing one by empowering the SoS (once again) to make an order, rather than wait for the relevant authorities to produce a ‘scheme’.

A late Government amendment took this streamlining further – or, as ministers prefer, increased local flexibility – by removing councils’ vetoes over CA boundaries. A district council can now join a CA without requiring its county council’s consent; likewise, even collectively, districts can no longer veto their county council joining a CA. Late it may have been, but it has potentially big implications – for Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, for example, both of whose northern districts would now be able to join Sheffield City Region without their county councils’ consent.

The other clause, in a different section altogether from CAs in the original Bill, was also directed at two-tier areas. Acknowledging some such areas’ dearth of enthusiasm for particularly mayoral CAs, it provided for the devolution of functions and powers to single local authorities acting alone. Orders could be made (by the SoS, of course) to introduce fast-track changes in respect of boundary reviews (as in Cornwall’s deal) and governance arrangements, which, it was explained, “may involve mergers of councils, moves to unitary structures, or changing the democratic representation of the area with different electoral cycles and fewer councillors”.

It seems a kind of Del Boy approach to devolution that presumably comes naturally to a business-driven government. The rack rate for devolved powers is an elected mayor, but get together with your mates or offer us up a few councillors and we should be able to do you a deal. Indeed, possibly a streamlined deal, as another late Government amendment enables the SoS to make changes in council boundaries with the consent, if necessary, of just one authority in the relevant area.

This is the reorganisation or unitarisation by stealth that exercises councillors and MPs alike, and it produced some of the most agitated contributions to the Bill’s Commons Report Stage – the only thing being, as the Minister pointed out, that it’s hardly by stealth, since the Government has had the power to impose structural change without the consent of local councils since the 2007 Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act.

Chris Game - pic

Chris 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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