An LGC survey has revealed the most comprehensive indication of how councils seek to win devolved powers in the aftermath of the Scottish independence referendum result.
The poll, to which 200 of the most senior officers and councillors responded, reveals a widespread expectation that partnerships including combined authorities, city regions and local enterprise partnerships will be the primary beneficiaries of devolution.
As many as 45% of respondents said their area would be willing to change its governance arrangements, with just over one in 10 areas overall considering an elected mayor.
Nearly 30% of councils said they had already started talks with other councils about forming a partnership to which powers could be devolved, in light of the prime minister’s pledge to devolve power in England.
The same proportion expected their local council boundaries to be redrawn. One respondent said such a move “would be far too complicated, expensive and unpopular with the public”.
However, there was still scepticism among respondents that power would be devolved. They gave an average confidence rating of 4.1 out of 10 that their area would gain power (with 10 being the most confident).
One respondent said: “An appalling depth of ignorance and apathy about local government services” would mean ultimately nothing would change.
Nearly a quarter of respondents had begun actively bidding for more power, while another 46% said they may consider doing so. Of those bidding, over three quarters sought devolution of a ‘whole place’ budget encompassing transport, housing, growth and jobs, skills, health and planning.
Overall, there was a widespread expectation that groups of councils would win power, rather than individual authorities. Over six in 10 respondents said that combined authorities, city regions, local enterprise partnerships or new partnerships of councils would be the primary beneficiaries of devolution. In contrast, 23% said top-tier councils would gain power, 10% said entire regions and 2% said districts.
Devolution should be “basically to counties with any unitaries within or adjacent” as LEPs “do not have a political mandate”, one respondent said.
Another response noted: “Cities are proven to be best deliverers of change – but some boundaries might need to be expanded to involve the greater city area/ region.”
Another figure added: “City regions are artificial groupings and pose a danger if they (or combined authorities) are imposed.”
A shire area representative opposed combined authorities in county areas as they were “only possible where all partners are equal”.
Size of council was a key factor in determining whether councils were actively bidding for devolved powers. Some 47% of councils covering more than 250,000 residents were bidding, compared to only 15% of those beneath this level.
Urban councils were slightly more inclined to opt for combined authorities and city regions and rural ones for top-tier authorities.
District councils were the most open to changing their governance arrangements to secure greater devolution, with 37% of district respondents endorsing this, far above the 22% figure for unitaries, the second most enthusiastic type of council. Only 7% of London borough respondents were willing to change governance.
Districts were among the least active in bidding for devolved powers, with only 9% of their respondents saying they were doing so. In contrast, 30% of metropolitan councils and a quarter of counties and unitaries were doing so.
Fears about the positions of districts were widespread. One district chief executive said: “I’m not happy about this – even as a growth area, the politics and history will gift control to counties, who are a busted flush.”
Another said: “I would prefer combined authorities on shared services and budgets but retain sovereignty of individual districts.”
While 55% of councils covering populations of 250,000 or more were willing to change governance arrangements, this was true of only 34% of smaller councils.
“Devolve decisions to unitary councils. We know more about the needs of our citizens than MPs.”
“The region is not a relevant and recognisable area to the public.”
“Decision will be driven by cost not natural communities.”
“The government favours LEPs which I believe it trusts as they have a strong business involvement.”
“Present government obsessed with core cities, LEPs and combined authorities. Doesn’t make it sensible though.”
“I am a deep sceptic on Westminster giving up power, but if it is given up it must be to councils and groups of councils, not quangos like LEPs.”
“I anticipate that local authority boundaries will change, but not as a result of any increased devolution.”
“Elected mayors are not popular locally and the concept of a regionally elected mayor like London is quite remote.”
“Focus has been on city regions - we are not part of one. Clearly don’t want to miss out.”
“Need a new northern power base to counter balance London and south east.”
“As a small district council we no longer have the resources to enable active engagement in this type of debate.”
“Devolution sounds a good idea, but difficult to implement and the outcome may not please anybody in the end.”
“Any changes need to be part of a constitutional convention, not just arbitrarily decided by central government.”