Combined Authority mayors – their first 100 days

Chris Game

My recent blog, endeavouring to mark our first six Combined Authority mayors’ 100 days in office by comparing their CAs’ corporate logos, was accompanied by a regret about not offering something more substantive. Prompted partly by the recent encouragement to prospective contributors to “accompany your blog, if possible, with a photo or image”, this is an attempt to do so.

The other, completely indispensable, prompt was the Local Government Chronicle team’s recent extensive assessment of the mayors’ first 100 days. For other purposes, I tabulated some of the LGC data, which enables more to be fitted into one blog than might otherwise be possible, and also explains the tables’ West Midlands upper case emphasis.


The first table is compiled from Mark Smulian’s pay analysis, showing that, dividing the mayors’ annual salaries by the size of the population they serve, the “cheapest” mayor is West Midlands’ Andy Street – his £79,000 p.a. representing just under 3p per head. The calculation formula is obviously crucial. Street’s is far from the lowest salary, but it’s nearly a third lower than Andy Burnham’s in the slightly less populous Greater Manchester. And it remains lower (2.8p against 3.4p), even allowing for Burnham’s first public mayoral act being to launch a homelessness fund, pledge 15% of his own salary towards it, and encourage others to do likewise.

More conventional comparisons – based, say, on the CAs’ budgets – are difficult, since, beyond their Investment Fund and transport grants, we’ve little idea of what they’ll eventually be. So, for what it’s worth, by the same measure Sadiq Khan costs Londoners 1.7p p.a., and Birmingham City Council leader, John Clancy, costs me 6p. Which is only fractionally less than will WMCA chief executive, Birmingham-born, -raised and -university educated Deborah Cadman, both highly regarded and highly rewarded.

Before venturing further, it’s worth emphasising how arbitrary this 100 days business is. Good politics for the guy who coined the now gimmicky cliché: US President Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, already New York Governor, campaigning for about the most powerful executive office in the world on the measures required to deal with the Great Depression. But tough for, say, Tees Valley’s Ben Houchen – five opposition years as a Conservative Stockton-on-Tees councillor, and expecting, probably up to election day, to continue running his sporting goods business, rather than a CA comprising entirely Labour-run councils; or Tim Bowles, similarly a backbench councillor in South Gloucestershire, before heading a West of England CA with even less certainty about its identity than the West Midlands.

Moreover, personal experience aside, it’s simply unrealistic to expect in barely three months a substantial record of policy achievement – in a completely new office, with a skeletal organisation, in which personally the incumbents can’t, Trump-like, sign daily executive orders, or indeed actually DO a great deal. One thing, however, they can be expected to do is to staff that skeletal organisation by making top appointments. In the West of England and Liverpool City Region they haven’t, and in their differing ways both seem concerning.


In the West of England, it seems they’re simply slow to emerge from – or possibly even get into – what Mayor Bowles terms ‘start-up mode’. It’s easy – though here, as I’ll suggest, possibly misguided – to question the real-world value of some of the other measures in the table: the ministerial hobnobbing, press releases and suchlike. But to be eating the dust on everything – even the “notable mayoral achievements” were suggested by me! – and still apparently unclear on even your CA’s eventual organisational size, doesn’t look good, either to councillors or an already sceptical public, whom Bowles has already cost over 2p a head.

In the now six-borough Liverpool City Region – as opposed to the fomer five-borough Merseyside Met County Council, which is perhaps part of the issue – the problem seems more obvious. It’s dissent: personal, political and geographical. First, there’s the evidently ongoing power struggle between Liverpool mayor Joe Anderson and metro mayor Steve Rotheram, dating back at least to the latter’s victory over the former in the battle for the metro candidacy. Then there’s the inter-borough stuff, with St Helens most openly but probably others too continuing to question the whole CA-based devolution exercise as “set up to help the cities. The councils who align with Liverpool can control things. The whole concept is flawed.”

The concept’s creator, George Osborne – and no doubt Mayors Rotheram and Burnham – would like Theresa May to revive his Northern Powerhouse project by announcing at either the Conservative Conference or in the Autumn Statement some version of HS3, linking Liverpool to Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds and even Hull. But, with these cities having not one Conservative MP between them, it seems, for this PM, an unlikely priority.

And here those listed ministerial meetings surely do mean something – most obviously that “the ministerial access and contact with senior echelons of government that the mayors have been afforded is more than council leaders and chief executives would normally expect”. And while his defeated Labour opponent Siôn Simon may label Mayor Street as “Tory London’s man in the West Midlands”, in this case it was the Tory Minister who did the calling: Business Secretary Greg Clark, who, in person and in this very university, delivered the Government’s confirmation of a second devolution deal.

In doing so, moreover, Clark kickstarted a policy affecting potentially the whole of English local government that for the previous 12 months seemed almost completely to have stalled. For that reason alone, and with due acknowledgement of Andy Burnham’s adept handling of the aftermath of the Manchester Arena bomb attack, and the other mayors’ early achievements in this artificially short time span, Mayor Andy Street has to be the recipient of my Michael Fish award for just possibly prompting a change in the local government weather.


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.

You say ringfencing, I say earmarking: those billions of local authority ‘hoarded’ reserves

Chris Game

A welcome feature of Communities and Local Government Secretary Greg Clark’s early months in office were his obvious efforts to be less interventionist and provocatively critical of local government than his predecessor, Eric Pickles. It’s not taken long, though, for it to become clear that he’s not that cuddly, and that the ghost of Pickles Past still haunts the DCLG’s Marsham Street corridors.

In early October (though largely ignored until recently by the UK media), in a party conference-pandering move straight from the Pickles playbook, Clark enthusiastically endorsed the Government’s plan to amend pensions regulations and procurement guidelines – the aim being to ban councils declining on ethical grounds to invest in or trade with companies involved, for instance, in the arms trade, fossil fuels, tobacco products, and Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.

So, come November’s Spending Review, it was more disappointing than surprising to hear the Communities Secretary not so much echo as anticipate George Osborne’s injunctions to local authorities to make good their grant losses by drawing on the billions of revenue reserves they’d built up – precisely as Eric Pickles was wont to do each budget-making season.

Indeed, the DCLG furnished the Chancellor – and, of course, the media – with what he deemed the convincing evidence of councils’ ability to do so, in the form of updated revenue expenditure and financing statistics (pp. 12-13, Table 6).  “Today’s figures show how they are well placed to … play their part in dealing with the deficit …, with local authorities holding £22.5 billion in non-ringfenced reserves – up 170% in real terms over the last 15 years. Now is the time to make efficient use of their assets and resources to provide the services local people want to see.” (my emphasis).

It was noticeable that Clark used neither of the inflammatory H-words – in contrast to Pickles, who in such situations was unable to stop himself sneering at the ‘hypocrisy’ of councils pleading poverty as they annually ‘hoarded’ their billions of cash reserves. But then he didn’t need to; Pickles’ media-training is by now well embedded, certainly in the tabloids.

Council reserves 1

The BBC was a touch more restrained, but statistically, at least in the East of England, about as useful as a punctured condom. “Councils across the East of England are sitting on reserves of £470m, a BBC East investigation has found”. Which might have been fleetingly interesting, had the ‘councils’ not comprised an apparently arbitrary selection of “all unitary, county and district authorities” from the East of England region and beyond, and had the figures borne any close correspondence to those just released by the DCLG, on which the ‘investigation’ claimed to be based.

Normally, none of this slapdashery would matter much, apart from irritating any viewers who resent being manipulated into being outraged at some scary big numbers and alleged mismanagement that they have no means of judging for themselves. In this case, though, it came to the attention of Councillor David Finch, Conservative Leader of Essex County Council, who understandably took the whole thing quite personally and proceeded ‘do a Hudspeth’.

INLOGOV blog readers may recall my recent account of the revealing correspondence between David Cameron and Ian Hudspeth, Conservative Leader of the PM’s own Oxfordshire County Council, in which the latter patiently and at length put the PM right on a number of misunderstandings he’d revealed about the county’s financial management and indeed about the impact of his own government’s policies. I sub-titled the exchange ‘the gift that keeps on giving’ and, although this wasn’t the form I anticipated a further instalment taking, it certainly fits the bill.

C’llr Finch had been one of numerous council leaders, in addition to the Local Government Association (LGA) itself, who protested back in November that:

“Whitehall should not be dictating how we should be managing our finances and reserves. Holding reserves is simply prudent and effective financial management and is done to ensure that in the event of an emergency or a major incident we can react without impacting other services.”

Politically if not personally, the Essex leader must have had a trying Christmas, not least through local MPs and their constituents having gained the impression that swilling around County Hall was not floodwater, as elsewhere in the country, but oodles of revenue reserves. He therefore wrote Cameron a three-page letter – described on his blog as ‘polite’ and by others as ‘hard-hitting’ and ‘scathing’ – setting out for the PM a few home truths. There were details of the council’s past savings, future enforced cuts, and ongoing budget pressures, but you sensed that, even more than these specifics, what really irked C’llr Finch was the flak he’d had to take about the council’s alleged reserves:

“I continue to be alarmed at central government misunderstanding, or even ignorance, about council reserves. Essex MPs have been told by the DCLG that the council is sitting on £300million of unringfenced reserves. We actually only have about £60million. The reality is we have just 23 days of available funding in our general reserve.” (my emphasis)

Like Hudspeth in Oxfordshire, the Essex leader is concerned more broadly about what he terms the “giant disconnect emerging between central government and local government” concerning local financial management (my emphasis). But the reserves issue has specific figures attached – a £240 million gap is a big misunderstanding by any standards – which means that the Essex section of the relevant DCLG table enables us to work out what’s probably been going on.

Council reserves 2

It would seem that the DCLG failed properly to explain, or the MPs failed to grasp, that, near-synonymous though the terms ‘ringfenced’ and ‘earmarked’ may be in any everyday conversation in which they may happen to appear, in local finance lingo they are fundamentally different. The DCLG distinguishes between local authorities’ ringfenced reserves, allocated specifically to schools or public health (though not housing, which is completely separate), and non-ringfenced, which are the rest.

Large local authorities especially, however, earmark often a large proportion of their non-ringfenced (sometimes labelled ‘usable’) reserves for a range of different but particular purposes. Like any prudent budgeter, they set money aside for future spending, rather than having to find it all when it suddenly becomes due by the end of the month. Common earmarked reserves are for financing future capital investment and major repairs, for PFI (Private Finance Initiative) payments on long-term projects, to cover claims made under a council’s self-insurance arrangements, to enable future savings targets to be delivered, and, not least in recent years, to safeguard against future years’ grant funding reductions.

The non-earmarked remainder – under one-fifth in Essex CC’s case – goes into the council’s General Fund, or C’llr Finch’s ‘general reserve’, which will be used to balance the budget if it’s overspent at the end of the year, but, in the meantime and more topically, will be used to pay for sudden and large cost pressures – like damage caused by exceptionally severe weather conditions.

David Cameron, who either doesn’t understand or doesn’t care about these not terribly subtle ringfencing and earmarking distinctions, seems happy to fire off petulant and factually inaccurate letters to his County Council leader, and to have his MPs similarly badger their own councils.

Clark’s case, though, is different. He certainly does understand, not least because a CIPFA survey of local authority reserves only last summer spelt out the message in detailed clarity. The numerous “recent changes in local authority funding have significantly increased the level of risk being managed by local authorities” (p.2). The radical transformations in service provision on which ministers are so keen have major one-off costs, including redundancy costs, that have to be budgeted for (p.3). “Using reserves purely to support ongoing expenditure merely postpones the need for cuts and makes those cuts more difficult to deliver when needed …” (p.4).

Council reserves 3

Above all, there were the statistical findings of the CIPFA survey – that, almost precisely reflecting the situation in Essex, nearly four-fifths of councils’ reserves were not being either mindlessly or politically ‘hoarded’, but were already earmarked for specific, and often Government-created, purposes. To accuse ministers of ‘going native’ is almost a ‘Yes, Minister’ cliché and in Clark’s case probably unfair, but he certainly doesn’t seem as cuddly today as he did six months ago.


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.