The evidence that combined authorities’ investment, decision-making and oversight is improving local economies is “mixed and inconclusive”, according to the National Audit Office.
In a report published today, the NAO said that while combined authorities have added to the “already complex structure of local government in England, they have the potential to improve accountability”.
Question marks have been raised about the impact these bodies are having on their areas though. The report said: “Combined authorities themselves often assume in their plans that there is a strong link between investment in transport and economic growth, for example. Despite this, evidence on the additional value that governance at this level can bring to economic growth is mixed, and combined authorities’ administrative boundaries do not necessarily match functional economic areas, or the existing boundaries of local enterprise partnerships.”
The NAO said it had assessed combined authorities’ draft monitoring and evaluation plans and “found that while they are working to link spending with outcomes and impact, they vary in quality, and measures tend to vary depending on data already available”.
Amyas Morse, head of the NAO, said: “For combined authorities to deliver real progress and not just be another ‘curiosity of history’ like other regional structures before them, they will need to demonstrate that they can both drive economic growth and also contribute to public sector reform.”
The fact most combined authorities are “lightly resourced” means their capacity is “currently limited”, the NAO said. It added there was “a risk” councillors too will have “limited capacity” to scrutinise the work of combined authorities.
A “lack of geographical coherence between most combined authorities and other providers of public services could make it problematic to devolve more public services in the future”, the NAO added. It pointed to the Liverpool City Region as an example where health, police, fire services cover different areas to that of the combined authority.
The nine combined authorities in England:
- Cambridgeshire & Peterborough
- Greater Manchester
- Liverpool City Region
- North East
- Sheffield City Region
- Tees Valley
- West Midlands
- West of England
- West Yorkshire