15 June 2015

Rocky road for Combined Authorities?

The road to the creation of a Combined Authority (CA) has been relatively smooth for those councils able to build on established patterns of cooperation, but for others it has been a more difficult path. Once CAs are created, however, new issues will arise. Here at INLOGOV we have been monitoring this process and identify four main challenges and lessons.

First, there are questions about the relationship between the CAs and Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs). The neat fit between the two in Greater Manchester presented few challenges. However, things are different where boundaries are not coterminous. For example, the proposed combined authority for the West Midlands will straddle three LEPs but include only seven of their fifteen constituent members. Those not part of the CA negotiations may have a change of heart, but this could lead to a lengthy debate over who’s in and who’s out, and a CA constructed on the basis of political rather than economic need.

Is it possible to have a CA that straddles the LEPs in this way yet which still works effectively? Time will tell.

A further complicating factor is the attitude of the LEPs within CA areas. We have yet to see whether the LEPs will fight for survival as their responsibilities begin to move to – or be challenged by - the CAs. Given that LEPs are the voice of business, and the rationale for CAs is to enhance economic recovery, this might make for an area of contentious negotiation in the future.

Perhaps one of the most enduring criticisms of CAs though focuses on accountability, a point discussed by Prof. Steve Leach and Howard Davies in May’s MJ. At a time of low public trust in politicians CAs are often viewed with suspicion as the constituency-link remains remote. This is connected with questions over identity, which are pertinent where deep-rooted historical rivalries exist.

In the West Midlands, historic tensions between Birmingham and the Black Country have meant that is has been difficult to negotiate the membership, governance arrangements and even the name of the CA. Many fear being subsumed under the might of Birmingham City Council. Any proposed CA must both respect and overcome differences in identity and be accountable to local people via effective delegated democracy.

Osborne’s insistence that the full range of powers and funding will only be granted to those that adopt a directly elected metro-mayor may go some way to alleviating these concerns. A recognisable and accountable figurehead can give the public – and central government – a focal point of accountability. Yet this too presents challenges, the most apparent of which is how to introduce an elected mayor in those areas that voted against them in 2012 referenda. Many will feel their views have been disregarded. Local leaders will need to make a convincing case to alleviate these concerns, which is difficult if they doubt the value of a metro mayor or resent the imposition.

Finally, there has been an effort to avoid a one-size-fits-all approach so there is a fair degree of learning-by-doing involved in establishing Combined Authorities. From our research so far, we can say that care needs to be taken to ensure that a CA reflects local identities and needs and engages rather than alienates the public. There is a lot to be gained from effective collaboration, but similarly there is a lot standing in its way.

Max Lempriere is a doctoral researcher and research assistant at INLOGOV.

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