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Devolution bill name change 'encouraging'

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A small change in the name of a piece of legislation which will form the basis of devolving powers to local authorities has been welcomed by the sector.

A fortnight ago, chancellor George Osborne talked about presenting a ‘city devolution bill’, which would “transfer major powers only to those cities who choose to have a directly elected metro-wide mayor”, in the Queen’s Speech.

That led to County Councils Network chair David Hodge (Con) and District Councils’ Network chair Neil Clarke (Con) to raise concerns about a “two-speed” approach to devolution which was “too narrowly focused on city regions”.

But in today’s Queen’s Speech the legislation was called the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill.

David Sparks (Lab), chair of the Local Government Association, told LGC: “It was very much trailed as a cities devolution bill but it’s actually a Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill and from our perspective that is very important.

“To us devolution has always been within the context of devolution throughout the UK, following the Scottish referendum, but it is not just about combined authorities.

“The LGA has been making the case for a long time that any devolution must reach all parts of England because the opportunities around jobs, economic growth, public service transformation are relevant and important to everywhere in England. It’s good that Greater Manchester and others have been leading the agenda but there’s so much more possibility out there.

“So it’s a really positive, if not perfect, step to acknowledging that in the legislation.”

Cllr Hodge, who is also leader of Surrey CC, said: “We are pleased that the devolution bill references counties and local government, and so sets out a broader context for devolution than just big cities. CCN have been making the case for a long time that comprehensive devolution must be available to all areas in the country. We will continue to engage with the government to ensure the upcoming legislation provides such opportunities for county areas.”

LGC reported last week how uncertainty surrounded what chancellor George Osborne’s devolution offer meant for mid-sized cities. Paul Watson (Lab) leader of Sunderland City Council and chair of the Key Cities Group, said he was “enormously encouraged” it had been called the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill.

However, he thought there were “some cautionary” elements to it and pointed to the bill’s briefing note which said it would “remove the current statutory limitation” on combined authority functions which are currently limited to economic development, regeneration, and transport. It would also enable local authority governance structures to be “streamlined”.

Cllr Watson told LGC: “You just worry does this open the door to having super councils again along the metropolitan sizes?”

The government will need to clarify its position, he said, as it could lead to “difficulties” in getting local support to create combined authorities.

“We need to ask the government what its intentions are in that direction because we need clarity,” said Cllr Watson. “Where there’s a void of information people do make their own minds up and invent things. I’m not saying we should be protected from austerity but it does look as though this could be done a bit through the back door.”

Bethan Evans, senior partner at public service law firm Bevan Brittan, said removing restrictions on combined authority functions potentially opened up opportunities for wider public sector reform, especially in relation to health and social care, welfare, housing and planning. She said it remained to be seen whether that would be the case though as the restrictions could still be limited to taking more control of a “broader pool” of local authority functions.

The bill will be “generic” so it can be “applied by order to specified combined authorities and their areas”, the briefing note said. It added the bill would enable an elected mayor for a combined authority’s area to “exercise specified functions and chair the authority”. The elected mayor will also be enabled to take on the functions of Police and Crime Commissioner for the area.

Ms Evans said the bill paved the way for “a new template of local government” and let councils create new forms of governance which “could affect the way local authorities operate”. She said: “What it does do, because it is not uniform, is pave the way for radically different forms of government but it does mean the country will look very different over the next few years. That is deliberate and recognises the fact there is a different appetite for change and a different local momentum in places; it’s definitely not one size fits all.”

Meanwhile, there is a separate Buses Bill which will “provide the option for combined authority areas with directly-elected mayors to be responsible for the running of their local bus services”. This would give places the chance to “franchise bus services” and “promote an integrated transport system”. These measures were included in Greater Manchester’s devolution deal. Further details on the main elements of the Buses Bill will be published “in due course”, the briefing not said.

In October the North East Combined Authority started the process of seeking powers to re-regulate bus fares and services across the network in the Tyne and Wear area from April 2017. Senior members of the combined authority had previously voiced opposition to the introduction of an elected mayor for the region but that stance was softened this month.

Local authorities in the Tees Valley, which are in the process of setting up a formal combined authority, have also expressed an interest in taking back control of bus services although Bill Dixon (Lab), leader of Darlington MBC and the local enterprise partnership’s vice chair, said he would only adopt an elected mayor “over my political dead body”.

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