County Devo: it’s a journey not a race

“Come to us with a plan for strong accountable leadership and we will give you the tools to change your area for the better”.

That was prime minister Boris Johnson’s offer to councils outside the current combined authority areas in his levelling up speech last month.

In slightly more measured tones later on the same day Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick invited major urban areas to consider agreeing “an ambitious mayoral devolution deal” while offering other places devolution “achieved in different ways…with freedom of choice and flexibility… tailored to suit the needs, identity and history of local areas.”

Two reports Shared Intelligence has produced for the LGA are essential reading for councils considering how to respond to their overtures. One, Devolution Deal to Recovery, draws out lessons from the experience of the mayoral combined authorities to date. The other, The Drivers of Collaboration, sets out the factors that can help secure effective collaboration between county and district councils that will be essential in responding to the prime minister’s invitation.

Both Johnson and Jenrick highlighted the strengths of the mayoral model but stressed that it was not compulsory. The PM referred to “other possibilities” while the communities secretary promised that counties would not be “forced to wear a model which can seem ill-fitting.”

But both also set a high bar for any alternative model to meet. Jenrick for example stressed that other governance proposals must “increase stability and strengthen local leadership” and called for “demonstrable improvements in governance, efficiency and local service join up.”

The PM floated the possibility of more focussed arrangements: “We could devolve power for a specific local purpose like a city or county coming together to improve local services like buses.”

One of the most important lessons we identified in our research for the LGA does not appear to feature in ministerial thinking. It is that in many of the combined authority areas the current mayoral arrangements are the culmination of a journey of increasingly sophisticated collaboration.

The Greater Manchester story is well known, beginning with the establishing of the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities in the 1980s. Many of the other combined authority areas have been on similar journeys and they attribute the effectiveness of the current arrangements to that experience.

In our report we talk about a spectrum of arrangements with an informal partnership at one end, a mayoral combined authority at the other and a statutory joint committee and/or non-mayoral combined authority in the middle. Places may wish to think about how they move across the spectrum and how far they want to go.

Our research suggests that the less effective combined authorities are those where the journey was truncated or disrupted, most frequently as a result of disagreements over governance. Jenrick is correct in encouraging places to think about a vision for what they are seeking to achieve. He is on shaky ground in thinking that this is something that can be done over the summer.

There is little doubt that combined authority mayors add value: we saw them acting as disrupter, convenor, leader and advocate. We also saw evidence that the ability of a local political system to accommodate a new political player of this type hinges on a degree of trust that can only be developed over time.

In our research for the LGA we concluded that councils and their partners considering pursuing devolution with government should ask themselves three questions:

  • What’s our vision, what are we seeking to achieve and across what geography?
  • What are the conditions necessary for us to deliver that vision? What are the challenges we need to address?
  • What do we need in terms of collaboration between councils, with other stakeholders and with government?

Councils concluding that a combined authority or similar model is appropriate should, we concluded, explore three further questions:

  • What’s our ambition in terms of the relationship between the combined authority and the constituent councils and how do we want to achieve and sustain that?
  • What’s our ambition in terms of the style, size and role of the combined authority as an organisation, including the business voice?
  • How can engagement with stakeholders and the wider public define and contribute to better outcomes?

Robert Jenrick concluded his message to councils by saying that “those areas with the clearest, most innovative and readily deliverable proposals that support levelling up will be prioritised.” The experience of the existing combined authorities is that those who take time to build a consensus locally and who see this as a journey rather than a single heave are most likely to succeed – and to provide the stronger local leadership that ministers say they want to see.

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