The communities secretary is to gain the power to “fast track” the creation of combined authorities and allow them to “share” responsibilities held by other public services such as the NHS.
The powers will be given legal force with amendments to the Cities & Local Government Devolution Bill, which is due to reach the report stage in the House of Lords on Monday.
One amendment expected to be inserted into the bill will allow the transfer of a public service to a single authority, such as county, district or combined authority.
The change is being introduced to allow devolution deals, such as the one proposed for Cornwall, to go ahead, according to a letter circulated to peers by Baroness Williams, the parliamentary under secretary of state at the Department for Communities & Local Government.
Such transfers of public services will only be agreed when authority’s footprint is large enough to “constitute a functional economic area” in its “own right”.
The letter, obtained by LGC’s sister title Health Service Journal, also sets the term for the elected mayors the government expects to preside over combined authorities at four years.
Another change will allow the secretary of state to “fast track” the creation of combined authorities and speed up changes to those that already exist.
This change will allow the communities secretary to waive a “particular procedural step” when he considers it to be a duplication or if it had “otherwise been complied with” during negotiations on devolution deals.
Another change, which appears aimed at smoothing the integration of health and council services, will allow the secretary of state to “impose…statutory obligations held by himself, NHS England or clinical commissioning groups on combined authorities or local authorities “alongside a transfer of functions”.
Such a measure aims to ensure the “continuation of current NHS accountabilities and standards”.
The letter adds: “These amendments make it clear on the face of the bill that a function can be exercisable by the combined authority and public authority jointly.
“This gives the option that where a function is devolved, the authorities can be obliged to share the functions together as a matter of assurance to the public user of the service.”
When there is a transfer of public authority functions to a combined authority, the communities secretary will be required to publish a report outlining the deal, according to the letter.
One further amendment allows precepts on council tax bills to be split into two when combined authorities with a mayor take on the functions of police and crime commissioners.
Such a precept would then “consist of the ‘policing’ component and a ‘general’ component”, the letter states.
It added that the communities secretary would be able to apply “different referendum principles” to the separate components.
The bill, when first published, said a mayoral precept could only be used to cover “expenditure incurred by the mayor for the authority”.
Baroness Williams has also proposed to include the legislative reform order which allows ‘non-contiguous’ councils to form a combined authority, even if the proposed grouping covered only a part of a county council’s area.