Hopes have been raised that counties can negotiate individual devolution deals without establishing a combined authority under thegovernment’s flagship Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill.
Published on Friday morning, the bill has been described as “permissive” and “flexible”. It significantly widens the scope of what can be devolved to combined authorities to include all council functions as well as those of other public authorities, provided the bodies involved consent.
It also appears to open the door to local government reorganisation, should local authorities in an area be willing and the proposal meets the communities secretary’s approval.
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Chancellor George Osborne has previously spoken of transferring “major powers” only to combined authorities covering large cities which opt to have a “directly elected metro-wide mayor”, prompting concerns about a “two-speed” approach to devolution.
However, Olwen Dutton, partner at Bevan Brittan, told LGC the bill was “not just about cities” and thought there would be “quite a lot of interest from some county areas going for devolution deals”. She said it should be a “big confidence boost to local government” as the legislation was flexible enough that it would be up to different areas to decide what powers they want.
Explanatory notes accompanying the bill, said there could be instances where a devolution deal could be agreed even if a combined authority was not in place. It gave the example of “a single county” covering a functioning economic area.
Paul McDermott, partner in the public sector commercial department at legal firm Trowers & Hamlins, told LGC this opened the door to a “form of devolution for counties”.
Mr McDermott said the legislation as a whole was “permissive” and would not result in anything being imposed on councils.
The only exception is that the communities secretary could impose a directly elected mayor on a combined authority if one of the member councils was opposed to the idea.
The notes said devolution to counties would be possible, provided all the councils in that area agreed to the move and “strong and accountable governance” arrangements were in place. It stopped short of saying that needed to be an elected mayor.
Writing in LGC this week, Essex CC leader David Finch (Con), suggested the solution could be “county governors” with similar powers to an elected mayor “public services commissioner, covering all public services”.
David Hodge, chair of the County Councils Network and leader of Surrey CC, told LGC it was up to counties to “persuade government that we have good governance in place” and gain the support of partners in the public sector and the business community to make devolution deals happen.
However, Cllr Hodge (Con), cautioned against members getting “bogged down” in discussions about structural reorganisation and governance rather than concentrating on service delivery.
The explanatory notes said that it might be necessary to simplify local government structures in areas where combined authorities were not adopted. This could include council mergers or moves to unitary structures.
Paul Watson, leader of Sunderland City Council and chair of the Key Cities group,had previously expressed concern the legislation could result in local government reorganisation through the “back door”. But he said he had been given some “reassurance” that would not happen as the bill prevents local authority functions being transferred to a combined authority against a council’s will.
Andrew Carter, acting chief executive at Centre for Cities, told LGC that although some will “complain” about the insistence on having a directly elected mayor, he thought the majority of the bill was “deliberately flexible” allowing for a wide range of functions to be devolved.
Meanwhile, the bill also enables combined authorities with elected mayors to take on the functions of local authorities. Again, that will only happen if councils consent to it and they can show the communities secretary it will improve the way services are run.
Combined authorities will also be able to either take on the functions of other public authorities “instead” of them or “concurrently” with that body, the explanatory notes said.