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Exclusive: Six London boroughs to discuss capital's first combined authority

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Discussions are under way over the possible formation of London’s first combined authority, LGC can reveal.

The new chair of the West London Alliance Muhammed Butt (Lab) said seeking to formalise the 16-year partnership between Barnet, Brent, Ealing, Harrow, Hillingdon and Hounslow LBCs was “the only way forward” if boroughs were to meet the challenges of further budget cuts.

Cllr Butt, leader of Brent LBC, said the WLA was “already set up to be a leading light” in London and added he would like more powers and responsibilities around strategic planning, transport infrastructure, employment and skills.

Asked about the prospect of formalising the WLA partnership into a combined authority, Cllr Butt said: “I would love to see that happen. We need to get everyone’s approval. In principle we are on the same page.”

However, Cllr Butt said some people were “concerned” that forming a combined authority could add “another layer of bureaucracy”. He added that he thought an elected mayor model was unlikely to be needed for a WLA combined authority due to the limited nature of the powers it was likely to seek and the existence of the London mayor.

Meanwhile, the LEP Network, the organisation that helps to co-ordinate the work of local enterprise partnerships, has been given a stay of execution after it looked set to fold on 8 December. Closure looked likely as a result of the departure of chief executive Alison Porter and a lack of funding for permanent staff.

LEP Network chair Alex Pratt told LGC that in a conference call with cities minister Greg Clark (Con) on Tuesday, Mr Clark had said he was “committed to the network” and agreed “some forward funding” which would maintain the organisation’s operation until the general election.

Mr Pratt ruled out recruiting another chief executive but said an interim team would be appointed once LEPs had decided how the network should be resourced to do “the really important things up to the election”.

He said the future of the network would then depend on the outcome of the general election. Asked whether he thought LEPs were being marginalised in favour of combined authorities, he said: “It’s horses for courses. The whole point of localism is some areas may want to run things differently from others…combined authorities need to be in the ascendancy but it doesn’t necessarily mean LEPs are falling from grace – they’re two sides of the same coin.”

Mr Pratt’s comments come as both Essex and the north-east work on plans for devolution.

Essex CC has revealed it is bidding for devolved powers and funding, especially in relation to delivering “job and housing growth”, so its local authorities could “have greater say over our affairs and greater ability to influence a range of public spending decisions”.

The bid was contained in a letter from David Finch (Con), leader of Essex CC, to chancellor George Osborne, communities secretary Eric Pickles and House of Commons leader William Hague, among others, on behalf of the county council, Chelmsford City Council, and the 11 district and borough councils in Essex.

The letter said: “We are committed as local partners to working together, with the government, to explore options for a devolution settlement for Essex and we recognise that part of this conversation needs to explore options for how our partnership governance arrangements could be strengthened in a way that respects a partnership of equals.”

Paul Watson (Lab), leader of Sunderland City Council, told LGC that in the wake of this month’s announcement of a devolution deal for Greater Manchester, members of the North East combined authority would meet to discuss potentially seeking more devolved powers and funding.

Cllr Watson said Greater Manchester’s deal was “interesting”. Asked whether the NECA would consider trying to negotiate something similar, including a directly elected mayor, he said: “There’s nothing ruled out.”

 

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