Opinion: Combined authorities and English devolution

The big news on devolution this week has been the twin announcements of more devolved powers for Wales and that Greater Manchester will be devolved control over the £6 billion health budget for the region.

It’s interesting to see what lessons can be taken from this. One is that ‘Devomanc’ really does appear to have substance, despite initial scepticism from various people (myself included) and another is that talk of English Votes on English Laws is even more redundant now that we face the prospect of Mancunian MPs voting on matters affecting the rest of England which don’t affect Greater Manchester.

A further, more worrying lesson, is that devolution is becoming ever more piecemeal with wildly varying levels of devolution both across the UK and across England.

But England the lessons are particularly interesting. Those of us living outside of major city regions like Greater Manchester and Merseyside have been wondering how exactly we can get our share of devolution and it now looks like we have an answer.

Everywhere in England that has so far benefitted from a form of devolution has been an area with a Combined Authority. These were first made possible in 2009 and they have gained more and more teeth over time. They consist of local authorities clubbing together with the permission of the Secretary of State to gain strategic authority over a wider area, including by gaining powers over economic grown and transport.

At present there are combined authorities for the Sheffield City Region, West Yorkshire, the Liverpool City Region, the North East and, of course, Greater Manchester. Each of these is now the recipient of a form of devolution or in negotiations to receive it.

On top of these, combined authorities are being proposed for areas including Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Cambridgeshire, the Tees Valley, Birmingham and the Black Country, Greater Bristol, PUSH (Portsmouth, Southampton and the Isle of Wight) and Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire (as one unit).

Interestingly, changes being introduced this year mean that combined authorities are now allowed to cover areas which cross county boundaries, include only part of a county or are non-contiguous – although a local authority can still only belong to one combined authority. This means that rural areas previously excluded from combined authorities are now able to participate in and form them.

So if you want to know which parts of England will receive devolution next then it seems likely that the best bet is to look at the areas which have formed combined authorities. And if you hope for your own area to benefit from devolution then looking into forming a combined authority is a good starting point.

However, the role of combined authorities as pre-requisites for devolution in England still face serious issues.

One is democratic accountability since combined authorities are not directly elected. Another is the lack of public involvement in their formation and the devolution deals they’re offered. The final one is the lack of a fixed model of powers that devolution to them entails.

Personally I would favour an elected Wales-style assembly for all combined authorities which receive devolution and a ‘set menu’ of powers for them to receive. Either way, as devolution gathers pace, these are all questions which must be addressed.

* George Potter is a Vice-Chair of the Social Liberal Forum and a campaigner for Guildford Liberal Democrats, writing in a personal capacity.

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  • Good article, George,
    You are wise to pin-point this feature of the Coalition’s Devolution by Press Release —
    “….A further, more worrying lesson, is that devolution is becoming ever more piecemeal with wildly varying levels of devolution both across the UK and across England.”

    You later also mention the democratic deficit in most of what comes from the Coaition Big Cheeses.

    There seem to be confusion at the top between “Delegation” and “Devolution”.

    Acting as a regional Branch Office of Her Majesty’s Treasury is NOT devolution.

    If Devolution is not about power, accountability and greater local democracy it is nothing more than an extension of Corporate Capture to the regional level.

    If Clegg understands such things it is not from his public statements. Although to be fair I did not notice any word from him on the Wales statement, his role seemed to be simply to nod his head in agreement with everything said by Cameron at The Millenium Stadium.

  • paul barker 1st Mar '15 - 1:48pm

    We should first acknowledge that local councils arent directly elected either & never have been. We elect councillors for our wards & they elect the council as a whole. Of course we want the number of layers between voters & politicians to be as low as possible.
    I find the messy, piecemeal nature of thes reforms attractive, local solutions to local needs.

  • “I find the messy, piecemeal nature of thes reforms attractive, local solutions to local needs.” – Someone perhaps who has the LibDem party organisation diagram on their wall, so that they can admire messy organisation…

  • Tony Greaves 1st Mar '15 - 3:20pm

    Of course Local Councils are directly elected.

    Combined Authorities per se are not a form a devolution – they are the opposite. They are existing Local Authorities combining into one authority for certain specified purposes. As such they are a move away from localism and a more centralised and barely democratic system and so undesirable. The bribe from the government for CAs is money rather than more powers. It’s an attempt to reorganise local authorities by stealth into ever bigger bodies. (And if there is a Labour Government watch out for a lot more of this illiberal stuff).

    It is not clear to me how much devolution there is in the new health and social care proposals for Greater Manchester. If I understand it, the proposal is to pool (ie centralise spending from local authorities (care) and Clinical Commissioning Groups (health) and possibly other more locally based NHS bodies?

    If this is the case it is another example of centralisation and removing decisions further from the people and more locally accountable bodies. All done in the name of devolution.


  • Tony Greaves 1st Mar '15 - 3:21pm

    And if there is a Labour Government after the GE, watch out for a lot more of this kind of illiberal stuff.

  • Maurice Leeke 1st Mar '15 - 3:27pm

    I am relaxed about the “variable geometry” of different models in different places. I am much more concerned about combined authorities – with a single representative from each authority puts decision-making much too remote from most councillors, never mind the electors. Our experience of the Cambridge City Deal Board has failed to inspire any confidence in the combined authority approach. My conclusion is that we need directly elected bodies for whatever area is being devolved to. Given where we are now I would settle for some devolution to unitary authorities to start with. More substantial devolution requires an elected body to receive it.

  • Eddie Sammon 1st Mar '15 - 4:12pm

    Tony makes a good point about how local authorities clumping together is not a form of localism.

    I don’t know why someone would rather create a mess rather than something beautifully designed. If people don’t want it then they should be asked to leave the United Kingdom. We shouldn’t be begging them to stay and giving them more powers without taking away their power to influence other areas.

    There’s no excuse for giving Manchester more powers without reducing their power to influence other areas. What you’ll end up with is the unravelling of the United Kingdom and lower economic growth.

  • Peter Chambers 1st Mar '15 - 7:48pm

    @Maurice Leeke
    “More substantial devolution requires an elected body to receive it.”

    Spot on.

  • David Allen 1st Mar '15 - 11:26pm

    Good article and some good posts below the line especially Roland, Tony Greaves, Nick Barlow.

    What I see is the survival of the pushiest. Empire-building local councillors with visions of self-aggrandisement pile in to form Robber Baronies, otherwise named combined authorities, with BaronManc in the lead. King Cameronute, who spent his time at Oxford in jousting and taverning, seems content to let feudalism return to Britain. Perhaps he understands that robber barons acted as surrogates for kingly authority in the unruly provinces, and played a helpful role in suppressing the rebellious Celts, Picts and Scots? But meanwhile, Miliblackadder and Ballsdrick have hatched their own cunning plan to capture all these baronies for the forces of Darkest Red…

    To get serious now – The problem is that all these barons are, literally, in naked competition for power and resources. If you live in somewhere non-baronial like Uttoxeter, Basingstoke, Cornwall, or Penrith – You will be a loser! The Robber Barons will have staked their claims to all the best deals. Everyone else will be left with the scraps – unless perhaps they live in marginal constituencies, of course.

    Regional government, in which every hamlet is assigned a place within substantial and broadly equal governing authorities, has a reasonable chance of achieving fairness. Sadly, instead we have a government which finds the “messy, piecemeal nature of thes reforms attractive”. That’s because messy, piecemeal changes give plenty of scope for favouritism and Robber Baronies.

  • Why does Wales/Scotland have to have a referendum for more devolution, but not Greater Manchester?

  • Stephen Hesketh 2nd Mar '15 - 7:37am

    Jack Read 2nd Mar ’15 – 6:42am

    A very pertinent question indeed Jack. My personal view is that because we have in play here an unholy alliance of Tories and Labour. A simple top down power grab.

    It is sad to see Liberal Democrats supporting similar moves in Sheffield.

    Liberal Democrat policy is for genuine regional government not a carve up producing Labour dominated city states and Tory dominated Shires.

  • Lucy Nethsingha 2nd Mar '15 - 12:28pm

    Lots of interesting comments above. The democratic deficit is a major problem for the combined authorities we have seen so far. Large directly elected councils could help over-come this IF they had some form of PR and were therefore more representative and less likely to be dominated by the two larger parties.

  • Julian Tisi 2nd Mar '15 - 1:19pm

    A good article and some very good comments too. The problem I see with this piecemeal “devolution” if you can rightly call it that is lack of accountability. With such a mismatch of unclear reforms, depending on where in the country you are, how does an average voter understand who exactly is responsible for what?

  • SIMON BANKS 5th Mar '15 - 10:25pm

    Rather strange distinction by paul barker. Voters elect all the councillors who combine to form the council. that IS direct election. Indirect election would be if the people elected in the wards then met to elect another bunch of people to serve as councillors.

    A danger in imprecise language about devolution is that instrumental delegation, as others have pointed out, is not devolution. Under Blair there was a lot of talk about devolution but what it amounted to was telling local authorities, “This is what you have to do. But good news – HOW you do it is up to you.”

    The main problem with piecemeal devolution is that it creates a barrier to devolution for areas stuck between the successful ones. Say Oxon, Bucks and Northants do achieve new powers. So do Hants and the Isle of Wight. So where does that leave Berkshire? Even if its representatives want to join one of the other blocs, the other bloc might refuse. Under our party’s current ill-thought-out policy, this kind of situation would actually lead through the abolition of the county council to Berkshire districts coming under direct Whitehall rule.

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