I am told the chief executive of one of the new mayoral combined authorities recently shouted at a group of colleagues from constituent councils: “You are the most difficult group of chief executives I have ever had to work with.”
This may well be a local government myth, but it has a ring of truth about it. There has been a lot of discussion about the roles and functions of combined authorities, but very little about the implications of their establishment for the future of local government in the areas they cover.
An important part of the prospectus on which they were established is that their core tasks would be related to powers and resources devolved from central government. They would not ‘suck up’ functions from existing councils. But it was never going to be possible or desirable to adopt a purist approach to this.
Enabling growth is combined authorities’ core task, with little initial enthusiasm to grasp the health and care nettle. But the important links between health and the economy; between housing and growth; and between productivity and public service reform inevitably require combined authorities and their mayors to take an interest in core council responsibilities.
Few doubt that one element of the future of local government is greater collaboration between councils and their partners. This often involves different geographical footprints, but the combined authority boundary often makes more sense than most.
The Greater London Authority and mayor are now approaching their 18th birthdays. One close observer of the London scene recently suggested that the cumulative impact of the devolution deals now being negotiated in the capital looks set to have a bigger impact on the role of London boroughs and how they operate than City Hall has had to date. Councils in combined authority areas are having to respond to new mayors and devolution at the same time.
It is important to consider these issues now because England’s track record of building effective relationships between different spheres of government is not good. Relations between ministers and council leaders are as bad as ever. In large parts of the country, two-tier local government is dysfunctional at worst or frictional at best. We have a deeply entrenched hierarchical political culture.
If combined authorities are to fulfil their potential, we have to create a new approach to these relationships. It almost certainly won’t be easy, but it must be done.
Phil Swann, executive chair, Shared Intelligence