Designing in Collaboration: Challenges for the new Combined Authorities

Max Lempriere and Vivien Lowndes

At a workshop hosted in December 2015 by City-REDI, INLOGOVThe Public Services Academy at the University of Birmingham 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 fifth of a series of posts Max Lempriere and Vivien Lowndes reflect on the day’s major talking points.

The raison d’être of Combined Authorities is to foster collaboration amongst neighbouring local authorities in a time of limited resources, fiscal restraint and ‘wicked issues’. The goal is to stimulate economic growth through better integrating transport, business support and skills development at the sub-regional level.  Alongside the growth agenda, combined authorities are considering their potential role in public service transformation, especially in relation to health and social care.  Combined authorities are also an opportunity to express local identities and challenge London-centric policymaking through, for example, the development of the Northern Powerhouse or Midlands Engine.

By pooling resources, local authorities can avoid duplication and, share staff, expertise and ideas – and risks. This kind of ‘public-public’ partnership can lay the groundwork for the Combined Authority, but collaboration needs to goes far wider to include a range of organisations from the public, private and civil society sectors.  Indeed, the three Local Enterprise Partnerships in the West Midlands will be full members of the new combined authority.  So it isn’t just the case that constituent local authorities need to collaborate. Indeed, the more diverse the range of organisations involved, the greater the potential in terms of gaining insight.   And engaging with civil society groups holds the promise not just of leveraging expertise and capacity, but also of enhancing citizen involvement in local decision making.  Since the Greater Manchester Combined Authority was given budgetary control over local NHS spending (February 2015), this has necessitated collaboration between local council leaders, health and social care providers, clinical commissioning groups, and a range of patient and community bodies.

There is considerable scope for local Universities to play an important collaborative role in the devolution agenda.  Supporting the new combined authorities will require bringing together those who create and apply knowledge within different sectors.  Universities can make available an evidence base to support economic development activities, but also to inform new collaborative governance arrangements themselves.  Universities themselves have a strong incentive to engage proactively in knowledge transfer, given the Treasury’s insistence that research must be able to show demonstrable ‘impact’.  Universities can also play an ‘honest broker’ role in convening opportunities among relevant parties, as is happening in the current move to establish a Midlands Engine to rival (or complement) the Northern Powerhouse.

Despite these opportunities, collaboration is deeply challenging. It requires the fostering of an environment in which the needs of the Combined Authority as a whole are put before those of individual local authorities. This is a difficult task, especially when organisations have been used to having executive sway over their own actions.   Rather than seeking ‘competitive advantage’, organisations need to focus on the potential gains from ‘collaborative advantage’.  In a nutshell, this offers individual organisations the chance to achieve outcomes that they wouldn’t have been able to accomplish on their own.  In fact, they may not even have thought of them!  The aim is not just to improve the delivery of existing services, but to re-imagine what local government might offer a locality through collaborative working.  Entirely new visions, and ways of working, could arise out of the process of collaboration.

New forms of leadership are important in fostering collaboration. Different skills and personal qualities are required, in comparison with leading a single organization.  Research shows that, whatever structures and procedures are put in place, it is often ‘special people’ who make the difference.  Such individuals may not be in the most senior positions, but they demonstrate the ability to bring different groups together, build trust and foster creativity, identify and harness the added value from collaboration, and maximize learning.  Typical personal skills are sociability, pragmatism, personal resilience and a sense of humour!  Collaboration is more than a list of email addresses or skype contacts.  Face-to-face contact and practical step-by-step objectives are crucial.  We all know these sorts of natural collaborators when we meet them.  Talent-spotting for these skills is an urgent task for councils considering secondments to the new combined authorities, or new collaborative roles at council level.  Nurturing new collaborative champions is a responsibility for all partners, as is ensuring that we all learn from those to whom collaboration comes more naturally.   We can’t create these ‘special people’, but we can foster environments in which they flourish – and are rewarded.  How many performance management agreements, or appraisal systems, take account of collaborative as well as organizational achievements?

While new directly elected mayors will head up the major combined authorities, and act as important points of accountability, they won’t provide a substitute for a network of committed ‘boundary spanners’ on the ground.  What they can do is provide the overall vision for their locality, providing a clear answer to the question: What is devolution for?  Mayors can also champion particular forms of collaborative behaviour that put the interests of the locality before that of any individual organization, and also prioritises engagement with residents, communities and local businesses.

Collaboration needs to be the DNA of the new combined authorities.  A commitment to collaboration needs to inform the design of all the new roles, structures and processes.   Collaboration needs to be designed-in from the start.  The goal should be the integration rather than the simple aggregation, of governance capacities within the locality.

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 Institute for Local Government Studies at the University of Birmingham. His research interests include institutional design, local government policy making, devolution, urban planning and sustainable development.

Vivien Lowndes photo

Professor Vivien Lowndes is involved in research, teaching and knowledge transfer on local governance and public services. She is particular interested in partnerships, citizen participation, and gender issues. Currently Vivien is working on the development of Combined Authorities in the context of devolution, local government responses to austerity, Police and Crime Commissioners’ gender policies, and the use of evidence in migration policy. With colleagues at INLOGOV, she is also engaged in comparative research analysing innovative governance institutions in the UK and Brazil.

City deals: A missed opportunity?

Martin Stott

Today is the deadline for the submission of the second round of ‘City Deals’.  Twenty cities and city regions are putting proposals to DCLG based around four ambitious objectives to:

    • Boost local economic growth
    • Rebalance the economy spatially and sectorally
    • Decentralise the powers and levers cities need to drive local economic growth and
    • Strengthen their governance and leadership

When they were originally announced by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg in a speech in Leeds in December 2011, City Deals were part of the carrot to encourage large cities to opt for elected mayors. Devolution of major new powers and budgets to new city leaders were promised. Unfortunately with the exception of Bristol, the electorates didn’t play ball. But DCLG pressed on and the deals were announced in July 2012, with Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham and Sheffield – thereby ironically, cutting the new mayor in Bristol, George Ferguson (who wasn’t elected until November 2012), out of the process. At the time of the DPM’s announcement, there was a sense that this might be a real and significant constitutional change, in tandem with the arrival of the new city mayors. But between the launch speech and the reality of policy on the ground, things became a lot more prosaic, as the agreements struck in 2012 lay bare.

As ever with central-local government relations, the reality has in no way matched the original hype and  in a time of retrenchment generally and ever smaller budgets for local government in particular, DCLG have been in no position to  provide anything very much in the way of new resources. Staff in Councils and Local Enterprise Partnerships (who are key players in the proposed new ‘city deals’ because of their focus on private sector led economic growth) comment that ‘there is no real money in it’, and that the process and likely outcome is similar to that seen in the negotiation of Local Public Service Agreements (LPSA) and the abortive ‘Total Place’ initiatives under the last Government.

There is one striking difference between city deals and LPSA’s, picked up by the Green Alliance in their report Green Cities; using city deals to drive low carbon growth. Whereas LPSAs all had a climate change/green economy strand in them, the city deals struck with the ‘big eight’ cities have this dimension largely as an add-on, if that. The Green Alliance found that only Leeds framed its approach to growth with a low carbon vision for the city and that apart from Newcastle, few deals acknowledged the role of tackling climate change in securing resilient economic growth. Bristol, a city whose image has been predicated on an at least vaguely greenish tinge, has a City Deal that makes no mention of the subject.

Now the programme is being extended to a ‘second wave’ of twenty localities from ‘Sunderland and the North East’ to Plymouth. The group is made up of the 14 next largest English cities (after the ‘big eight’) plus a further six – such as Greater Cambridge and Milton Keynes – which recorded the highest population growth between 2001 and 2010.  One of the striking aspects of this group of cities – the smaller and fast growing ones – is that they in many cases already have a significant ‘green economy’ dimension, or are cities whose location  brings opportunities waiting to be exploited, such as Hull and Teeside. But if the poor record of the first round of City Deals is any kind of baseline – and with the second round of city deals focussing on a single initiative rather than a range of measures – the prognosis for more than a handful ending up taking advantage of this crucial part of the ‘rebalancing’ of the UK economy looks pretty bleak.


Martin Stott was Head of Environment and Resources at Warwickshire County Council until the autumn of 2011, when he concluded a 25 year career in local government.  He has recently become an INLOGOV Associate.