‘If the rules aren’t written, you can write your own’ – Flexibility, Elected Mayors and Combined Authorities

Max Lempriere

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.

Devolution: a journey into the unknown?

Catherine Staite, Director, INLOGOV

A key theme of the discourse on devolution in recent months has been the thrill of the new, through the creation of new local institutions – combined authorities – and new relationships between central and local government.  Some old hands will have noted the similarities with previous ‘resources/powers in return for performance/compliance’ offers such as Local Area Agreements, Multi-Area Agreements and City Deals.  Those ventures were characterised by big promises,  wearisome competitive processes and few real benefits for local government. Those disappointments were often attributed to the dead hand of Whitehall.

So what is different now?  The power dynamic is different. If DCLG tries to drive change it is at the mercy of the Treasury.  When the Treasury drives change it happens.  The prizes seem bigger too but perhaps the biggest difference is the pace of change.  It’s certainly galvanising local authorities into action. Long-standing differences have been overcome and a sense of common purpose established in many areas.  Devo deals are being negotiated and agreed at regular intervals.

So what next? Creating a combined authority and signing the deal is merely the end of the beginning.  How will these new institutions and changed relationships need to develop over time? Will governance structures conceived in optimism be sufficiently strong and flexible to meet future challenges? How will politicians need to adapt their leadership style to a shared leadership model with the added  ingredient of an elected metro mayor?  Will the combined authorities withstand changes among the key leaders and chief executives? If one of the leaders runs for mayor will all the others stop speaking to him/her? If the mayor throws their weight about, will all the leaders withdraw their goodwill?

Academics have given significant attention to both the previous waves of change and the implications of the current approach to devolution. There is much evidence to be mined and that will help the key players in combined authorities continue to shape their governance arrangements and manage their challenges. Devolution and all its ramifications has been the hot topic at recent conferences, such as the SOLACE Summit, as well as for the LGC and MJ. However, there have been few opportunities for academics and local authorities to come together to share experiences and intelligence.  The pace of change has left little time for reflection but the scale of change demands that key decisions are informed by evidence.

INLOGOV is offering four such opportunities over the next few months, starting on 5th November.  These free events are also supported by academics from the Public Services Academy and City REDI, the new economic modelling unit recently established by Birmingham Business School.  Our purpose is to enable local authorities to talk to each other about all the critical issues; their experiences of negotiating with central government, of creating an effective approach to shared leadership and of hammering out shared priorities across diverse areas – as well as to take advantage of the insights which research offers about new ways to solve old problems. We hope this sharing of knowledge and experience will help ensure that this latest wave of change really does bring bring significant and lasting benefits for local authorities, their partners and – most importantly –  the people they serve.


Catherine Staite is the Director of INLOGOV. She provides consultancy and facilitation to local authorities and their partners, on a wide range of issues including on improving outcomes, efficiency, partnership working, strategic planning and organisational development, including integration of services and functions.