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Met councils back city-based regions

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Government proposals to create statutory city regions have won a string of endorsements from metropolitan authorities amid growing awareness of the limitations of existing voluntary partnerships.

With the government promising to unveil at least two forerunner city regions in next spring’s Budget, an LGC survey of multi-area agreement (MAA) partnerships ahead of expected legislation in the Queen’s Speech found almost unanimous support for the powers on offer.

Although the Greater Manchester and Tees Valley partnerships were the only ones to explicitly register their interest in being forerunners, the offer of greater control over city-wide capital spending, housing, transport, skills and planning for statutory partnerships was praised in Leeds, South Yorkshire, Birmingham, Tyne & Wear and Humberside.

Local government minister John Healey unveiled proposals to allow groups of councils to set up statutory economic improvement boards - since renamed economic prosperity boards (EPBs) - to direct economic policy across a sub-region (LGC - 27/11/08) .

A Department for Communities & Local Government spokeswoman admitted there would be “no requirement for a city region to have an EPB” in order to access the greater powers. However, she said the government would be “more willing to delegate further powers and responsibilities to city regions with an EPB in place... than an MAA”.

But while Mr Healey has been keen to stress the voluntary nature of putting MAAs onto a formal footing, details emerged this week of the limitations of what can be done without statutory bodies.

The Tees Valley partnership was originally confident it could enact its plans to share resources across funding streams through a voluntary MAA. However, negotiations with Whitehall departments this autumn revealed significant legal concerns.

“We always felt our accountability arrangements were strong enough,” said Jonathan Spruce, assistant director of the Tees Valley Joint Strategy Unit . “The question was how comfortable the government felt and I think that’s where the proposals come from.”

“The government also didn’t have confidence it had the legislative cover to devolve powers to one sub-region without setting a precedent for another,” added Chris Leslie, director of the New Local Government Network thinktank. “[Yesterday’s legislation] will allow the government to do different deals with different sub-regions.”

The government has confirmed an EPB will be able to receive funding as well as employ staff, enter into contracts, be given powers and duties, and own property.

John Healey writes exclusively for LGCplus

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