W(h)ither LEPs and devolution?

“The Local Government Association has called on the government to urgently release its annual devolution report amid fears the process has stalled across the country.

The umbrella-group’s plea, released on Monday (see next post), marks two years since the government set a deadline for local areas to submit devolution proposals.

Around 34 proposals – from cities, towns and counties across England – have been submitted.

The LGA argues that billions of pounds worth of economic growth and hundreds of thousands of new jobs and homes risk being lost as a result of the so-called “devolution deadlock”.

Mark Hawthorne, chairman of the LGA’s People and Places Board, said councils wanted to use greater powers to build more homes, secure the infrastructure essential for economic growth, improve roads, close skill gaps and increase access to fast broadband but feared opportunities were being missed because devolution has “stalled”.

He added: “To reignite the devolution process, the government needs to engage in a debate about appropriate governance arrangements with local areas.

“This is fundamental to ensure that the momentum around devolving powers to local areas is not lost and the billions of pounds worth of economic growth, hundreds of thousands of jobs and homes on offer through non-metropolitan devolution deals is not lost with it.”

The LGA wants the government to publish its annual devolution report, setting out progress on negotiating deals, when parliament returns this week.

Under the Cities & Local Government Devolution Act, the secretary of state is expected to provide annual reports to parliament setting out the progress on devolution across England – this year’s report has yet to be published.

Concern has been sparked as no new deals have been announced for 18 months although the election of six combined authority mayors earlier this year was hailed as a significant milestone for devolution in England.

Council leaders said this was not the only model of devolution possible and the government should explore further options for the widespread transfer of powers and responsibilities to the whole of England to boost the economy and improve people’s lives.

A Department for Communities & Local Government spokesman said: “This government is 100% committed to devolving powers to local areas where there is strong local support for plans to deliver better local services, greater value for money and clear accountability.”

Localis think-tank chief executive Liam Booth-Smith said: “The wait has simply been far too long for the two-thirds of England that lacks the capacity and robust governance structure to deliver the government’s national industrial strategy.

“Given the economic urgency of Brexit, all parts of England, from major cities to small towns, deserve new powers to revive moribund local economies and with it the opportunity to help themselves.”

Booth-Smith said a Localis report on the industrial strategy recommended the establishment of 47 strategic authorities – based on existing county and combined authority boundaries – to control devolved powers to help drive economic growth.”


Final big nail in Heart of the Southwest Local Enterprise Partnership coffin?

The type of organisation detailed here is exactly how our LEP is structured. Surely, now someone, somewhere will pull the plug on it?

“The six mayor-led combined authorities risk becoming “a curiosity of history” as there is little evidence to back their assumption that devolution will improve local economies.

That is among findings by the National Audit Office in a report Progress in Setting Up Combined Authorities.

Parliament’s spending watchdog said the six – Liverpool City Region, Tees Valley, West Midlands, Greater Manchester, Cambridgeshire and Peterborough and West of England – could have been joined by other areas but these had “been unable to bring local authorities together to establish combined authorities”.

The NAO said there was “a logic to establishing strategic bodies designed to function across conurbations and sub-regional areas, and there is a clear purpose to establishing combined authorities especially in metropolitan areas, as economies and transport networks operate at a scale greater than individual local authority areas”.

Most combined authority proposals were put to the government on the basis that they would deliver more rapid economic growth by spending money and exercising powers locally.

But the NAO noted the combined authorities were “inherently complex structures” and evidence that investment, decision-making and oversight at this level was linked to improved local economic results was “mixed and inconclusive”.

It said combined authorities “often assume in their plans that there is a strong link between investment in transport and economic growth, for example”, but evidence on the additional value that governance at this level can bring to economic growth is mixed, the NAO said.

It was also concerned that combined authorities’ administrative boundaries do not necessarily match functional economic areas, or the existing boundaries of local enterprise partnerships.

“We assessed combined authorities’ draft monitoring and evaluation plans, and found that while they are working to link spending with outcomes and impact, they vary in quality, and measures tend to vary depending on data already available,” the report said.

Despite this, the combined authorities’ economic regeneration role “would become more pressing” if Brexit leads to reductions in regional funding at present received from the European Union.

Combined authorities “are generally in areas which receive the most EU funding”, it noted.

NAO head Amyas Morse said: “For combined authorities to deliver real progress and not just be another ‘curiosity of history’ like other regional structures before them, they will need to demonstrate that they can both drive economic growth and also contribute to public sector reform.”

The County Councils Network strongly opposed the government’s requirement for elected mayors to lead combined authorities – and only Cambridgeshire and Peterborough involves a county council.

CCN director Simon Edwards, said: “This report from the NAO highlights many of the concerns the majority of CCN members raised over the prospect of mayoral combined authorities in county areas: an added layer of bureaucracy in an already complex landscape, a lack of co-terminosity with key public sector partners, and questions over whether this format would lead to economic growth in rural areas.”


A northern Tory councillor and his view on devolved power

Tomorrow I’ll be toddling across to Leeds where, among other momentous matters, the West Yorkshire Combined Authority with consider whether to change its name to Leeds City Region Combined Authority. This has caused a ripple of disgruntlement in my city as people ask quite why this decision is being taken now and whether it marks the end of Bradford’s separate and individual identity.

I don’t like the proposal. Mostly this is because it is totally unnecessary. We’re told by officers that the current brand (essentially ‘West Yorkshire’) is confusing because there’s another brand – ‘Leeds City Region Local Enterprise Partnership’ – within the purview of the combined authority and having two brands might be confusing for high-powered, multi-million pound wielding international business folk wanting to invest. That and all the others are named after cities (well Sheffield, Manchester and Liverpool at least but not Birmingham and Bristol).

The report tells us that the basis for the change results from ‘comprehensive research’:

“…benchmarking the WYCA against other combined authorities nationally or internationally, an audit of existing communications activity by the organisation, and substantial engagement with audiences including elected members, local authority chief executives, private sector business leaders, central government officials, partner organisations and WYCA employees.”

Sounds good – just the sort of paragraph I’d have put into a client presentation about research when I didn’t have any budget. What we have here is a series of chats with existing connections such as members of the LEP, political leaders (but not opposition leaders) in the West Yorkshire councils and senior officials who we work with. There’s no script, no presentation of findings, no suggestion that we’ve done anything other than ask the opinion of a few people who we already know.

In the grand scale of things all this probably doesn’t matter much. Except that, for us in Bradford at least, we’ll begin to recognise that plenty of decisions previously made by councillors here in Bradford are now made somewhere else (Leeds) by a different organisation. This – as councillors on Bradford’s area committees have discovered – includes mundane and very local stuff like whether or not to put speed bumps on a street in Cullingworth.

What annoys me most about this stuff is that we are gradually replacing accountable political decision-making with technocratic, officer-led decisions. So us councillors, for example, get pressure to put in speed cameras but have precisely zero say in whether and where such cameras are actually installed. Somewhere in the documentation of the soon-to-be Leeds City Region Combined Authority there’ll be a line of budget referring to the West Yorkshire Casulaty Reduction Partnership. That is what ‘member decision-making’ means most of the time these days.

So to return to the name change. I’ll be opposed because it’s unnecessary nd divisive. But when it goes through (I love that they’re planning an extensive ‘member engagement’ after they’ve made the decision) it will at least be a reminder that most of the big investment decisions out there are being made on the basis of Heseltine’s ‘functional economic geography’ rather than using the democratically-elected local councils we all know and love. OK, not love- that’s going too far – but you know what I mean.”


No money trees in Devon – or are there?

“Workers in the South West are £1,500 a year worse off in real terms than they were before the financial crash, according to new figures published by the TUC.

The analysis shows that real wages in the region are 6.7 per cent lower, on average, than they were in 2008. …

One in three jobs created in the South West since 2011 have been in insecure work, according to the figures. The TUC estimates that 281,223 people now work in insecure jobs in the region. That represents one in 10 workers in the South West.

TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said: “Workers in the South West are £1,500 a year worse off than before the crash.

“This region badly needs a pay rise. It’s nearly ten years since the financial crisis, and working people are still suffering. Politicians have to explain to voters how they’ll create decent jobs that people can actually live on.

“And there needs to be recognition of the damage pay restrictions in the public sector are having. Hard-working nurses shouldn’t have to use food banks to get by.”



“The head of a publicly funded body tasked with boosting prosperity in Devon and Somerset has been awarded a 26 per cent pay rise.

Chris Garcia will now earn £115,000 a year for his role as chief executive of the Heart of the South West Local Enterprise Partnership.

The controversial proposal was approved by the LEP board at a meeting in Tiverton on Tuesday, January 17.

Devon County Council had signalled that its representative on the board, Councillor Andrew Leadbetter, would vote against the proposed pay award in light of “the tight financial times in which we live”.


“Austerity has made local government financially unviable. Radical reorganisation may be the only answer”

Owl says: But alas not before EDDC has spent £10 million plus of our money on a new HQ which may be redundant before they move into it!

“Tory councillors popping celebratory corks after last week’s haul of seats should bear in mind the old adage: be careful what you wish for. Now they occupy council leadership positions from Maidstone to Morpeth, it is they alone who must now carry the can for sorting out local government’s two Rs, revenue and reorganisation. The latter is going to haunt county halls for the next political cycle.

The blue tide isn’t going to wash away any of local government’s fundamental problem of a lack of money. Jonathan Carr-West, chief executive of the Local Government Information Unit, has said he hopes “emboldened county leadership” could campaign for sustainable funding for social care and children’s services; he’s an optimist.

Residents may be willing to pay more for looking after older people. But how? Council tax won’t provide enough, so it will be down to central grants. Whoever is communities secretary after June 9 (and Theresa May looks unlikely to keep Sajid Javid) must now devise a distribution and needs formula for England that will protect Tories in the north as well as those in the heartlands of the south.

Short of May tearing up the spending plans set out by Philip Hammond barely a couple of months ago, financial pressure isn’t going to ease. So, come June 9 we’re back to the Christchurch question. A month ago, councillors in the solidly Tory Dorset district decided to defer a referendum on an outline plan to reorganise local government in that county, getting rid of two tiers and replacing the county council, districts and existing Poole and Bournemouth unitary councils with two new, big unitaries. Without reorganisation, the story goes, austerity has made local government financially unviable.

Reorganisation details are different in the various, but the same kinds of argument have been playing in Lincolnshire, Oxfordshire, Kent, Bucks, Essex, Hampshire and the other shires. If you notice something similar about those names, gold star: they are all Tory. What’s in prospect is largely an intra-Tory party argument which, in Kent, for example, is already pitting Tory MPs against councillors, as well as setting up massive squabbles between councillors themselves.

We’ve been here before, several times. Those with long memories will recall the long hours and bitter debate within the John Major government in the 1990s over reorganisation. The fruits of that included the demise of Avon county council in 1996, which the West of England combined authority is a bodged attempt at recreating.

Reorganisation is back because consultants’ reports say it should in principle be cheaper to run services over bigger areas with a single tier council and county executives usually agree. But those reports perennially underestimate transitional costs and rarely factor in the hard-to-quantify but vital element of the identification of residents and staff with particular places and local history.

Besides, most reorganisations turn into messy compromises. Take Christchurch. A “rational” reorganisation based on economic geography would align it with Southampton and the Solent, with the New Forest a sort of park in between urban areas. But few Tories are willing to abandon entirely the historic boundaries of Dorset even if the county council goes, just as few Tories want to see the (non-Tory) urban areas of Oxford and Cambridge being allowed to swallow the districts around them.

And all that is just local government. Summing up the costly and largely ineffective debates of the 1990s, Michael Chisholm, chair of the Local Government Boundary Commission, complained of the folly of reorganising without simultaneously considering council powers and finance – which these days has to include the interrelationship of councils and the NHS as well as the fraught consequences of councils’ keeping the proceeds of business rates and the end of central grants.

There’s trouble ahead but at least reorganisation would weaken the political hegemony the Tories have now established across a wide swath of English local government.”


Undemocratic mayors, undemocratic scrutiny

“The mere election of a mayor … does not mean these new mayoralties are automatically democratic. Mayors work within combined authorities, with cabinets made up of council leaders – all of whom are indirectly elected through a broken First Past the Post voting system.

But there is no directly elected assembly to hold them to account, like that of the London mayoralty. Instead, the Mayor is scrutinised by Overview and Scrutiny Committees made of councillors and within the council chambers themselves. This means who sits on those committees really matters.

At the Electoral Reform Society, we want to see a better democracy. And the metro mayors are the biggest change to the governance of England in decades. They are an exciting opportunity to change the way our cities are governed to be more inclusive, more local and more visible.

But we are concerned that this structure passes up existing legacies of problems in local government to the new mayoralties, as we point out in our new report From City Hall to Citizens’ Hall: Democracy, Diversity and English Devolution.

Due to our electoral system, Britain has a multitude of local ‘one-party states’, with almost no opposition in the council chamber. Many of these abound in the areas electing metro-mayors, with some councils having just one member from outside the controlling party.

Previous work for the ERS has shown that these councils risk an extra £2.6bn on public procurement each year, due to a lack of scrutiny.

Concerns around scrutiny are particularly strong in some of the metro-mayor areas because the council leaders – who will make up the cabinets – lack any diversity whatsoever. Only two of the council leaders of the six areas electing combined authorities are women. Only one is from a BAME community. This carries with it risks within the policymaking process, narrowing the experience and knowledge-base around the cabinet table.

So far the combined authority scrutiny committees have also demonstrated a lack of diversity, both political and demographic. On the West Midlands Overview and Scrutiny Committee, for instance, ten of twelve political members are drawn from one party, and ten are men.”


Owl says: Should Devon and Somerset EVER become a combined authority, our councillors and the Mayor will bend their knees to the nuclear and property vested interests of the majority of businessmen (men) who run our Local Enterprise Partnership – forget scrutiny. It didn’t help when the self-same people gave their CEO a 24% payrise and there was NOTHING councils could do about it.

English devolution – undemocratic and unrepresentative

“… The ERS (Electoral Reform Society) has been vocal in pointing out the solely economic focus of devolution – and the corresponding lack of attention to the democracy of devolution. With the public largely shut out of the process, and models imposed rather than chosen, so far citizen involvement in the constitutional future of their own areas has been minimal. …

… The creation of combined authorities highlights a continuing shift in the role of the councillor. Where once councillors took decisions directly on committees they are increasingly scrutineers: holding to account formal executive structures in the form of mayoral or cabinet/leader structures, or scrutinising bodies such as Clinical Commissioning Groups, Local Enterprise Partnerships, Police and Crime Commissioners, and now combined authorities.

The traditional argument for First Past the Post: that it elects ‘strong’ governments, cannot hold up to the reality of modern councillor life in which councillors are as often scrutinisers as decision-makers, not only of their own executives but of bodies external to the traditional council governance structure.

Yet, there are still many councils overwhelmingly dominated by a single party. …”

Click to access From-City-Hall-to-Citizens-Hall.pdf