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Ed Cox: Confront the spectre of a federal England

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One of the most significant institutional developments during the past parliament has been the introduction of combined authorities.

Local authorities in the city regions of Liverpool, Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle and Sheffield have all established arrangements – constituted in law – which involve close collaboration to support economic development and improve public service provision. Working in partnership with local enterprise partnerships, combined authorities have been responsible for local growth plans and, in the cases of Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield, they have now negotiated significant devolution deals.

It has been widely assumed that combined authorities are now the preferred institution by which any future government will devolve further powers and both the Conservative and Labour manifestos reinforce this with references to devolving to city and county regions. But what ‘form’ will any future combined authorities take and how might this happen?

The outgoing coalition clearly preferred the so-called ‘Manchester model’ which effectively brings together the city’s 10 local authorities. Initially this was an ‘association’ of Greater Manchester Authorities which has now been constituted as the Greater Manchester Combined Authority and is led by a leaders’ board chaired by Lord Peter Smith (Lab), Wigan MBC’s leader.

From June it will be chaired by an interim mayor before direct elections take place in May 2017. It is important to note that the new mayor will be far more constrained by the leaders’ board than London’s metro mayor.

GMCA has the benefit of over 20 years of joint working at both political and officer level. It also benefits from the dominance of Labour leadership in eight out of 10 local authorities but perhaps its most obvious virtue is its economic geography. Manchester has a single ‘core’ of economic activity which few would debate is the primary focus of its labour and housing markets. Outlying local authorities generally coalesce within a model of economic development where each can be clear of its place in relation to Manchester city centre.

But this ‘Manchester Model’ is not easily transferable to many other parts of England. Many of our city regions are ‘polycentric’ with a number of hubs of economic activity competing for predominance (Leeds, Wakefield and Bradford in West Yorkshire for example). There is a much shorter history of collaborative working in most places and greater political diversity between local authorities to be negotiated. Few have any appetite for a directly elected mayor – now a precondition for any future Conservative government to devolve powers.

So what might be the alternatives? Or what could be dressed up as a ‘combined authority’ even if it strays beyond the Manchester Model? County councils are working on their own models. Some are considering formalising the relationships between all upper-tier authorities within broad county regions – a model that might work well where a county council surrounds a unitary authority as in the case of Derbyshire and Derby, for example.

Others are looking at building relationships with adjacent local authorities, as has happened with the cities. But possibly the most controversial ‘new’ form of combined authority would be a vertically integrated model where counties and districts agree to work more collaboratively – a situation that many would consider a first step towards unitarisation.

New models of governance will also prove challenging. Any Conservative-led government looks pretty set on a directly elected mayor as the only acceptable form of governance to unlock serious devolution. However, other models might be better suited to different forms of combined authority – especially in polycentric urban or large rural areas.

On the continent a wide range of models exist including leaders’ boards with a delegated city-region ‘president’ or a fixed-term, rotating chair, elected and unelected ‘assemblies’, and ‘standing conferences’ of key stakeholders who are responsible for a city-region strategy and plan.

England would also do well to look to our European neighbours’ approach to what might be called mezzanine-level institutions. Despite the English reticence for all things regional, most developed nations understand that on matters such as transport, energy, water, innovation and inward investment, the 30+ city or county regions are too small and too numerous for proper strategic planning and yet England is too big and too centralised.

With the recent emergence of Transport for the North, it might just be that the next government recognises that a more federal England is a spectre they would do well to confront.

Ed Cox, director, IPPR North

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