Poor relationships with neighbouring authorities and the “ghost of unitary restructuring” are proving barriers to the formation of combined authorities, according to respondents to LGC’s latest confidence survey
While more than 80% of respondents said their council was already in a combined authority, planning or considering joining one, almost three-quarters cited at least one barrier that was making progress difficult.
More than 220 council chief executives, directors and senior officers responded to the survey.
Poor relations with at least one neighbouring council was the most frequently cited barrier with councils in the south-east and east of England most likely to give this as a reason.
In addition 32% of officers said ruling councillors on their local authority were not interested in forming a combined authority. That was most common among respondents in the East Midlands and London. Councils in the capital cannot technically form combined authorities, although some are looking at partnership arrangements.
A number of respondents highlighted the problems of trying to create a combined authority in two-tier areas including “complex geography and geo-local politics”, while one officer said “the ghost of unitary restructuring [was] preventing sensible discussion”.
Respondents based in districts were more likely to cite ruling or opposition councillors as a block to forming a combined authority at 38% and 46% respectively, compared with 32% and 8% among respondents overall. Two-fifths of those in districts said councillors were in discussions with more than one potential combined authority and struggling to make a decision, compared with 14% overall.
Many respondents in two-tier areas listed other issues that were preventing local agreement. These included what one respondent described as “dinosaur district council leadership both political and officers”, a lack of co-operation between lower-tier authorities and the difficulty of getting districts to “give something up”.
The responses suggest county areas could struggle to form combined authorities to which powers could be devolved in the immediate short term.
Councils in Derby and Derbyshire, and Nottingham and Nottinghamshire were the first two-tier areas to form a combined authority.
Writing in LGC this week, Newark & Sherwood DC’s chief executive Andrew Muter acknowledges it is “unlikely any governance review can be carried out without the spectre of local government reorganisation being raised”.
“The danger which can quickly arise in discussions about governance and structure is that purpose is subsumed,” says Mr Muter. “A critical turning point for us was the moment we re-focused on our strategic ambitions for Nottingham and Nottinghamshire. It is the conversation about destination, purpose and objectives which can get you over the obstacles which arise in debates about structures.”
The two main parties both have distinct offers on devolution. The Conservatives said they would devolve “significant powers” to large cities with elected mayors while other areas could negotiate growth deals. Labour proposed a “universal offer” to county and city regions that formed combined authorities. Shadow communities secretary Hilary Benn told LGC it was up to the combined authorities to come up with a satisfactory system of governance.
LGC’s survey found widespread opposition to the idea of elected mayors, with only 19% saying they would support such a move in return for greater powers.
Of those who did not support the elected mayor model of were unsure, 57% said they did not believe power should be concentrated in the hands of one individual.
One respondent described elected mayors as a “fad in the ilk of police and crime commissioners” while another thought the ‘leader and cabinet’ system was “better” as it made everyone work together “whereas the mayor can be in conflict with the cabinet and this can lead to real problems”.
Meanwhile, 40% said the population in their combined authority area did not have a shared identity which made it harder to introduce an elected mayor.
One officer said: “The area is too broad geographically with very strong councils. It would prove divisive to try and agree on one person to lead the combined authority.”
This was the issue faced by the West Yorkshire Combined Authority which ultimately dropped its demands for fiscal devolution when it became clear the Treasury would not entertain the idea without the region adopting an elected mayor.
Summing up the mood on elected mayors, one officer said: “Whether to go with an elected mayor model should in any case be a decision made locally and independently from any ties to devolution – the two are being unnecessarily linked as a matter of ideology.”