Councils in England and Wales are displaying growing interest in the establishment of combined authorities as a way of heading the pressure for large-scale local government reorganisation.
Talks are under way in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire over two combined authorities. Each authority would embrace the county council, districts and the cities of Derby and Nottingham respectively with a remit of promoting economic development.
And the Welsh Local Government Association has proposed the creation of four combined authorities above the 22 existing councils as a way to head off the wholesale mergers of councils planned by the Welsh Government.
Mike Ashworth, Derbyshire’s strategic director of economy, transport and environment, told LGC: “There has been a lot of interest in what we are doing from other areas because it would allow a way of working together without all the work that a unitary reorganisation would involve.”
Both Leicestershire and Warwickshire CCs unsuccessfully floated county unitary reorganisations last winter, arguing that the two-tier system was financially unsustainable, and the idea is being explored in Buckinghamshire.
Tony Travers, director of the London School of Economics’ Greater London Group, told LGC: “If you have a classic British top-down reorganisation at some future point it may be a defence to have a combined authority.
“If you can show cross-local authority working you might argue that you do not need a full reorganisation.”
However, he said combined authorities would not deliver the savings of single administrations and sets of councillors expected to arise from reorganisation.
Leicestershire CC leader Nick Rushton (Con) told LGC: “I can’t see how a combined authority would save very much money. The real savings come from not having seven chief executives and seven everything else.”
The WLGA said in a discussion paper that its mooted Welsh-style CAs could have powers over regional level transport, strategic land use planning, economic development, waste processing and commissioning of health and social care.
Welsh councils that face merger would be retained below the combined authorities instead of falling into “sullen stasis as they look forward only to their demise”, it added.
There is some pressure for a single Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire CA.
A Derby City Council cabinet report last week said it was “increasingly likely that government will want to see the two [combined authorities] moving quickly to a merged CA”.
But Newark & Sherwood DC chief executive Andrew Muter, who leads on the Nottinghamshire proposals, told LGC: “Different government departments have different views and it’s up to us to be assertive about what is right, not necessarily fitting with messages from civil servants, which can be confusing.
“We’re looking at two combined authorities and I cannot see there would be a quick merger. I think the Derby report reflects the view of one civil servant, who I will not name.”
The East Midlands CAs would differ from the existing metropolitan ones in covering different tiers of councils.
“We are satisfied it will work though obviously it’s not as straightforward as when you are just dealing with unitaries,” Mr Muter said.
Mr Ashworth said: “We are working on two combined authorities. I think the Department for Communities & Local Government sees a single authority as easier in governance terms, but it is not pushing that on us.
“The clear message is the government sees a hierarchy of devolution with combined authorities as the strongest form.
“It is new ground in a two-tier area and central government are feeling their way on this too, though it would be very helpful if there was clarity on what government departments want.”
Graham Chapman (Lab), deputy leader of Nottingham City Council, told LGC: “The whole point of a combined authority is that it works on economic development and transport but neither of those necessarily follow local government boundaries and it is travel-to-work areas that matters, therefore we’ve got to design to reflect the real economy.”
He said those involved should not “get distracted by trying to look for the papal smoke”, from Whitehall.
Districts in the north of both counties already have associate status with the Sheffield City Region CA.
A joint spokesman for North East Derbyshire and Bolsover DCs told LGC: “We could sign up to the Derbyshire combined authority, or the Sheffield city region one, and the thinking is that whichever we joined we would become a non-constituent member of the other.”
Bassetlaw and Derbyshire Dales DCs are also affected.