The last few weeks have been confusing in terms of devolution.
Despite the uncertainty around the direction of devolution itself, areas with deals are working hard to put in place robust systems for decision-making and accountability.
For many areas, agreement to an elected mayor was an act of pragmatism worthy of the prize. Thinking about the realities of a relationship between the mayor and the combined authority has prompted some areas to find ways to keep the two roles separate, even though in reality those dividing lines might be difficult to maintain. All areas anticipate a period of flux as they manage the arrival of a new mayor.
Securing broad member and public buy-in remains a preoccupation. Progress is being made and for some, such as the West Midlands, testing out scrutiny arrangements provides an opportunity to engage a broader range of councillors from constituent councils in combined authority business. The raw experience of getting sign-off of deals back at the ranch is driving efforts to keep backbenchers engaged. This will continue to be a priority for leaders after May. Scrutiny chairs and committee members should see this as being part of their role too.
The identity of the elected mayor will be important for scrutiny, as the scrutiny chair can’t be from the same political party as the mayor. If the mayor is independent, the scrutiny chair must not be from the same party that as the majority of members on the committee. There is also the potential to ‘co-opt’ scrutiny members from outside the constituent councils, which could be helpful particularly in relation to progressing the public service reform agenda.
There is an onus on those at local level, especially non-executive councillors, to think creatively about how they expect governance to work for them and the public. This is an excellent opportunity to build public trust in the mayor and combined authority.
Scrutiny will need to be more flexible and responsive than it might be at local level and have a lighter touch. It will need to have a narrower focus and to work in a different way to that which many will be used to.
Naturally, there is an element of ‘wait and see’ in the build up to the elections. Our advice to all areas, however, is to work hard at creating the right governance culture. Structures can easily be changed but once a culture has been embedded that fails to value accountability, transparency and involvement, it’s hard to shift.
Local and central government are watching areas with deals closely. The prospects of further devolution could rest on their ability to navigate these waters successfully.
Jacqui McKinlay, chief executive, Centre for Public Scrutiny