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Are combined authorities part of local government?

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Commentary on today’s big debate

Was it an issue of semantics, a storm in a teacup or a more fundamental debate about our sector’s future nature?

A disagreement arose in a debate at yesterday’s New Local Government Network ’changemakers assembly’ between Manchester City Council leader Sir Richard Leese (Lab) and West Midlands CA chief executive Deborah Cadman about whether combined authorities are part of local government.

LGC’s correspondent Jon Bunn, who attended, wisely cautions that this was no row – perhaps the first line of this briefing should more accurately read ‘breeze in a teacup’ – but it was nevertheless significant that Ms Cadman said her body was definitively “not” part of local government. Sir Richard insisted the organisations were “fundamentally” part of the sector.

Ms Cadman suggested she felt differently to Sir Richard because she worked for mayor Andy Street (Con), who “is from the private sector and has a different view of the world”. She also said combined authority mayors had “freedoms and flexibilities” that “leaders of place don’t have”.

While she later conceded combined authorities are “of” local government, she was insistent that she couldn’t deliver half a million new jobs and houses directly, adding: “I have to do that through local government.”

Sir Richard’s point was, both with regards to statute and functions, combined authorities “are local authorities”.

“Combined authorities happened because local authorities asked for them,” he said. “In terms of what happens next with local government, [combined authorities] were not something central government asked us to do, it will be some local government itself says ’this is what we ought to be doing’.”

While it may be news to some councils that combined authorities are not part of local government, it is undeniable that Ms Cadman has a point. Indeed, the government has been insistent on combined authorities having mayors as a means of differentiating them from regular local government.

The government intended the new bodies to be closely tied to the business community and in Ms Cadman’s boss – the former head of John Lewis – the Conservative party got its ideal mayor in the West Midlands. George Osborne’s vision was of a “radical new model of city government” with mayors directly “accountable to local people”, cutting through the local political system, freed of the constraints associated with council chambers.

The new bodies are also more convening bodies than service providers and do not have the sort of staffing levels found in conventional local government. When LGC researched the size of their workforces 100 days after mayors were elected, it ranged from 17 in Cambridgeshire & Peterborough CA to 1,952 in Greater Manchester CA, largely due in the latter case to 1,422 firefighters falling under its leadership. We are not talking about the recreation of the Ken Livingstone-era Greater London Council.

Culturally too combined authorities often feel far removed from regular local government. Tees Valley CA’s address for instance is on Teesdale Business Park. It’s in a fairly respectable if a trifle dull office block, rather than its spiritual home being a semi-circular chamber in some Victorian monolith like some councils hold meetings in. And, as LGC has remarked before, there is a curious similarity in the new bodies’ logos which tend to almost uniformly show a series of coloured dots or swishes – no coat of arms, flower or lion in sight.

While the structure may be new, the offices still gleam and the faces remain fresh, the mayors still have limitations on their power.

In a Facebook post Tees Valley’s Ben Houchen (Con) last week spoke about how his council leaders or cabinet members (all Labour) were hampering his plans to take his local airport into public ownership and instead offering funding to its operator.

“Ninety-nine per cent of the time we work well together and it can be a genuine delight to stand side-by-side with them in the public interest,” he wrote. “However, on Monday last week, Redcar & Cleveland Council leader Sue Jeffrey – who was also my Labour opponent in the mayoral election – put forward a wrecking amendment to my annual budget which would allocate £500,000 to Peel Airports. My office received a copy of this proposal on the Friday beforehand. I’m disappointed I was given little notice to consider this proposal. It felt like a stitch-up.”

The Labour motion offering half a million pound to the airport owner was passed by Mr Houchen’s cabinet – but vetoed by the mayor himself.

Similarly, Mr Street’s budget proposals in the West Midlands, which involved a £10.80 council tax precept for Band D properties, were blocked by his predominantly Labour council leaders.

This isn’t local government as we know it – but it is local government. There are stitch-ups and compromises to be reached. Deals need to be made between a mayor and his cabinet, who tend to be prominent political actors in their own right, rather than be based on a leader assessing levels of political support across their chamber. It is a slimmed down local government.

As well as considering whether combined authorities feel like part of local government, we should perhaps also ask whether the councils of today resemble the local government of the past? The workforce has diminished, the bureaucracy has been stripped back and the services are far reduced from what they were a decade ago.

The one constant, other than the split between member and officer roles, is that councils largely lack the sort of freedoms and flexibilities that Ms Cadman notes are available to combined authority mayors. In this respect, perhaps we all want to break free of local government’s recent history.

Nick Golding, editor

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