Jon Masters 24 September 2015

Driving forward a future of devolution

Signals from the Government that it is willing to entertain more devolution of decisions and powers over spending have produced a flurry of proposals from combined authorities. Where Greater Manchester has led, others want a piece of the same action.

Benefits of more joined-up strategic thinking, efficiency and influence to attract funding are being talked about. For transportation there now seems to be the promise of more effective integrated authorities.

These will be single entities across wide jurisdictions, like Transport for Greater Manchester and similar set ups for the North East, West Yorkshire, the West Midlands and Cornwall.

The headline aims of these combined authorities are about economic growth and employment, attracting investment and developing skills. Government has made clear that it likes the sound of the intentions, providing the democratic process is led by the additional authority of an elected mayor.

This has previously been the main sticking point but now it appears that regions can see the march being stolen by Greater Manchester. Some have stated they are willing to concede to demands for a mayor’s office if it means more autonomy from Westminster.

‘We have written to Government to say we want to begin detailed devolution negotiations. Alongside this we will consider models of governance, including an elected mayor,’ says the transport lead for the North East Combined Authority, Newcastle’s councillor Nick Forbes.

‘Our ambition is to promote export-led growth and enable local companies to take advantage of international opportunities. We intend to consult with businesses, trade unions and other partners before publishing our detailed plans in the autumn.’

New ambitious transport infrastructure plans have emerged from the combined authorities, not just those seeking autonomy in the conventional way that Government wants.

Proposals have been submitted for a new strategic partnership arrangement between Northamptonshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire. Initially this was given the title of the Tri-County Alliance, but now it’s calling itself the England’s Strategic Heartland Alliance (ESHA) because there is the possibility of Bedfordshire, Luton and Milton Keynes joining in as well.

‘Our idea is for a different type of devolution,’ says Northants director and the Alliance’s lead on transport and infrastructure, Tony Ciaburro.

‘Our counties want to be part of a combined organisation, but retaining sovereignty over our respective geographic areas and with elected members retaining their powers. We have a lot of similarities and strengths for working together at a strategic level.’

It is proposed that governance for the ESHA will be provided by a Transport Infrastructure Forum with support from three Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEP), but not from the South East Midlands LEP, which overlaps into parts of Oxfordshire and Northants.

This would seem to raise doubts over whether the ESHA is going to work if priorities conflict without proper statutory authority. The proposal is already acknowledged as a two-tier system. ‘We could never get our district councils to agree to a combined authority,’ Mr Ciaburro says.

The ESHA’s governing forum needs to exist as an authority and it needs to be bigger than those existing at present, he adds. ‘What it can do is take out inefficiencies. We know from experience and demonstration projects that by working as an alliance we can take up to 40% off costs in processes of planning and procurement and reduce time taken to get schemes to site by a third,’ Mr Ciaburro says.

‘Nobody is saying this is going to be easy. The reality is that all existing boards and governance arrangements are difficult. But we’ve got to make this work because the potential rewards are so high. ‘We’re effectively taking a regional approach to make better use of what we’ve got and address the funding gap. We want pump prime money to set this up, but we’re saying we can then deliver cheaper and quicker without asking for much more.’

As combined or regional authorities gain greater powers for implementing their strategic plans, what about the second or third tier authorities? Will their road networks, vital for local business and communities, fall down regional priority lists?

The North East’s NECA economic plan contains high hopes for the region’s arterial road and rail links, but it says very little about the myriad highway networks of the constituent councils in Durham, Gateshead, Newcastle, North Tyneside, Northumberland, South Tyneside and Sunderland.

According to Cllr Nick Forbes, transport lead for NECA and Newcastle leader, NECA is developing a plan that will cover all aspects of the region’s transport network, including local roads and a general approach to asset management.

‘At the moment the constituent members of NECA are responsible for their own local roads and highways budgets. We have a number of joint working arrangements in place to help co-ordinate investment and improve efficiency,’ he says.

These efforts include a North East Highways Alliance set up to establish joint frameworks for contracts and services, Mr Forbes adds.

The devolution plans of NECA and Cornwall and the proposal put forward by ESHA have better rural transport as core aims to varying degrees. Cornwall in particular is banking on decentralised control of bus franchising, which the council says will create better, profitable services integrated with train timetables.

A longer version of this feature first appeared in Surveyor magazine. Click here to subscribe to your monthy copy.

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