Combined talents

By Jonathan Werran and Amardeep Gill | 20 June 2023
  • Jonathan Werran

The dynamic of devolution and centre of gravity for local public service reform is clearly moving through the prism of trailblazing combined authorities. 

In the most recent budget, combined authority poster boys and pioneers Greater Manchester and West Midlands were effectively treated as de facto government offices for their regions.

The landscape for devolution in England is notoriously fragmented and asymmetric, and we must accept we are on a slow voyage of transition. The historic political economy of England – draw a slanted line from Cornwall to the Wash – remains a stubborn bulwark against directly-elected mayors as the default preferred model in the greater South East and South West.

But the underlying direction and messaging is pretty clear. In his first stint as levelling up secretary, Michael Gove set out in the flagship Ditchley Park lecture a vision of central/local relations akin to the federal and state model between the US president and the governors of the 50 states. Equally, Gordon Brown in Labour’s recent report on devolution acknowledged that the UK is too centralised to be governed efficiently – painting devolution as an economic necessity rather than a nice to have.

Our contention is not that it would be desirable to immediately switch to this governance model, which is in effect the realisation of the main recommendations of the Redcliffe-Maude commission into local government after a more than five-decade delay period. But as an inexorable movement to having fewer and larger centres of local governance, we feel the need to have an open and honest conversation about the clear direction of travel and where this is likely to take us.

For example, what might this mean for the future delivery of local public services? For, indeed, a stated intention of combined authorities, especially since the 2011 Localism Act and Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016, has been to improve the delivery of public services. In the intervening years, combined authorities have been the perennial, major focus of devolution policy in England, codified in the Levelling Up White Paper as the only vehicles able to receive meaningful, ‘tier three’ devolution.

With the decision to abolish local enterprise partnerships and absorb their economic development functions into combined authorities where they fit or counties where not, and with the example of the Integrated Care Systems as a model for place-based reform of public services for joint economic and social ends, we are at an inflection point for public service integration and reform.

Public services and local economic growth are and always have been an interdependent unity. The direction of financial management is for local authorities to retain some of the fruits of growth – such as business rates retention – to invest in public service provision. And the levelling up agenda as currently constituted explicitly takes account of the link between placemaking and local services, capital expenditure and day-to-day revenue expenditure in improving the economic and social outcomes of people and realising pride in place.

In the public policy webinar we are running on 21 June, we will open the debate and pose a series of questions.

  •  For example, to what extent, if any, have combined authorities so far been improving public service delivery, both from a resident and local authority perspective?
  •  Beyond their boundaries, what has been the impact for frontline service delivery of councils left outside of combined authority areas?
  •  And in terms of governance, how does the ‘tractor beam’ pull of combined authority influence distort the ecosystem of local service delivery?
  • With a nod to Oflog and the era of greater regulation local government is insensibly entering into, are we able to quantify improvements to resident services accountably and transparently?
  •  Can we yet determine how combined authorities have changed or are changing the way local public services are commissioned, delivered and assessed? And what does the prevalence of combined authorities in policy discussions mean for councils as agents of public service delivery?

In fairness, the answer to many of these questions might well be ‘too soon to say’. But since these questions are coming down the track, and faster than some might perhaps like, these should be useful food for future thought around place leadership, local governance and whole place public service reform and integration.

So, in this context, an honest conversation about what likely impact change is going to have on relationships between combined authorities and constituent councils, as much as between central government and our localities, is one worth holding.

Jonathan Werran is chief executive of Localis and Amardeep Gill is a partner at Trowers & Hamlins

@Localis @Trowers

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Business rates Economic growth Devolution Transformation Combined Authority Mayors governance Michael Gove Levelling up