Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire are set to press ahead with separate devolution bids, but proposals could include an offer to adopt a ‘regional commissioner’ covering the two counties, LGC has been told.
LGC revealed last month that the Treasury had asked council leaders in the two counties to consider whether a single combined authority covering both counties would be a better approach.
The proposal for a regional commissioner was put to communities secretary Greg Clark, local government minister Marcus Jones, and the government’s special adviser Lord Heseltine during a meeting on 6 August to discuss the Treasury’s request.
Leaders told LGC they believed the presence at the meeting of elected members and senior officers from 19 local authorities helped to display the complexity of forming a single combined authority for the two counties, while at the same time showing they were working closely together to align proposals that would benefit both areas.
LGC understands ministers and civil servants have expressed an interest in learning more about how such a role – which is being touted as an alternative to an elected mayor – would work. They have also urged local leaders to be more ambitious in their devolution demands.
Anne Western (Lab), leader of Derbyshire CC, said minsters had listened to the case for two separate combined authorities.
“It was the subject of a lot of discussion but it’s not a sticking point at the moment,” she said.
However, the government asked authorities in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire to be more “ambitious” in their devolution demands and seek more than powers and controls over transport and economic development, Cllr Western said.
She said she had instructed officers in Derbyshire to look across the board, including at “aspects of health”, but added: “We don’t want to add to our woes and just take on further budget deficits.”
Chancellor George Osborne previously said areas would only get “significant” devolution deals in return for adopting an elected mayor.
Nottingham City Council’s deputy leader Graham Chapman (Lab), who chairs the county’s economic prosperity committee, told LGC one alternative that had been discussed at length by local leaders was a “regional commissioner”.
“We are willing to talk seriously about having an elected individual,” he said, and added the post-holder could either be directly elected by the public or chosen from among leaders in the two counties.
LGC understands a regional commissioner could control skills and employment budgets, or take on the role of the two counties’ police and crime and commissioners, should either of those form part of a devolution deal. However, any elements of a deal specific to one individual combined authority area would not fall under their remit.
Should the government be interested in the idea of regional commissioners then the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill would need to be amended as it only permits powers to be handed down to a mayor covering a single combined authority area.
Chris Corbett (Con), leader of Erewash BC which threated to derail the formation a combined authority in Derbyshire in February, said while he was “not alone in being nervous” about the proposal for a regional commissioner he did not want to “reject it out of hand”. He said much depended on what the government was prepared to devolve in return.
Cllr Corbett told LGC: “I wouldn’t rush out and say: ‘Great, what a wonderful idea’ but I would never say: ‘Over my dead body’ either.”
The Treasury had not responded to a request for comment at the time of publication.
Picture taken by Joe Hunt.