Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, interviewed by Jon Walker in last week’s Post, urged Birmingham and the Black Country to create a new combined authority “as quickly as possible” – meaning ‘before the election’. Well, to quote the late, lamented Mandy Rice Davies, he would, wouldn’t he?
As Jon Walker noted, we haven’t got even an agreed membership of a combined authority, or an agreed name, let alone any agreed devolution prospectus to put to ministers.
And by mid-May we’ll have a new government, possibly a more devolutionist one. So I’d say the rush is Clegg’s, to find something upbeat to make a campaign announcement about – not ours.
You’d think the election itself is enough of a horse race, without ministers creating their own Combined Authority and Devolution Handicap. However, if that’s what it’s become, it’s perhaps worth reviewing the progress of the main runners.
First, the rules. Despite the impression sometimes conveyed of council leaders rushing around, as if in a kids’ playground, trying to pressgang others into joining their team, Combined Authorities (CAs) are a serious, and statutory, business.
They have been set up in practice by Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, at the request of authorities in a specified area, who have agreed a scheme for exercising devolved statutory functions relating initially to transport investment and economic growth
First away in 2011, while the other runners were still grazing in the paddock, was the Greater Manchester CA, comprising the 10 boroughs in the former GM metropolitan county, and since its 1986 abolition the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities, a kind of voluntary met county in exile.
For a democratic body, this lengthy collaborative history has its drawbacks, but, to ministers, it gave the GMCA a huge starting advantage and potential governmental robustness, as does its visible geographical coherence.
Like all five CAs to date, it is based on its Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) boundaries, and here the contrast with the West Midlands is stark – as shown in the respective maps.
The GMCA is the former met county and the current LEP, and seven of the nine surrounding authorities are contiguous with the core city authority. The nine-council Greater Birmingham and Solihull LEP (GBSLEP) includes just two of the seven met county authorities, with the others split between two quite separate LEPs.
Politically the GMCA is strongly Labour, the party currently controlling eight of the ten councils. Most of the leaders have worked together for years, several having been in power for longer than Sir Albert Bore has led Birmingham, and even locally questions were raised about the accountability of this ‘mafia’ of Labour leaders in the increasingly powerful, but still indirectly elected, CA.
It obviously concerned ministers, and partly explains Osborne’s insistence that the Labour leaders’ contribution to last November’s ‘Devo Manc’ deal – an unprecedentedly extended package of devolved powers and funding – should be their agreement, however reluctant, to a directly elected mayor, who would provide both leadership and accountability.
The overriding reason for the mayoral requirement, however, became clear with the Government’s next devolution deal, in 2014 with the forever Labour Sheffield City Region CA, which, like the GMCA, covered the same area as the former (South Yorkshire) met county and current LEP.
Sheffield’s agreed package was smaller in all respects than Greater Manchester’s, but in particular it contained no additional fiscal devolution and revenue-raising powers – whereas Devo Manc extended Manchester’s already unique Earnback deal, enabling it to retain more of the additional tax revenue generated through infrastructure investment.
As William Hague, chair of the cabinet’s devolution committee, told a parliamentary reform group recently, Conservative ministers are extremely wary of devolving revenue-raising powers because of the “very, very fraught history” of local government finance and some councils’ “lack of control” during presumably the pre-rate-capping 1980s.
So 30 years on, ministers’ elephantine, Thatcherite memories have set the price of any worthwhile fiscal devolution as a directly elected mayor. Sheffield leaders didn’t want one, so they could have some extra control over transport, skills, housing and business support, but nothing approaching a Devo Manc deal.
Still, they have got something. Their neighbours in the West Yorkshire CA thought they’d call Osborne’s bluff. They stuck to their bids for fiscal devolution – including full retention of the growth in business rates and some exemption from council tax referendum rules – hoping he might overlook their opposition to an elected mayor.
He didn’t, so they dropped the fiscal stuff, but two months later they’re still waiting for any kind of deal, or indeed even a phone call.
So too is the Liverpool City Region CA who, even more misguidedly, proposed some “open talks” with Osborne about the possibility of a Manchester-type deal – which was never on – and without apparently the six borough councils agreeing even among themselves about an elected mayor.
That leaves the North East CA, the only one so far to cover a significantly wider area than a former met county, and for that reason alone of possible interest to the West Midlands.
It too is LEP-based, but here a LEP covering most of the North East region, whose voters rejected an elected regional assembly in 2004: Northumberland and Durham unitaries, plus the five boroughs in the former Tyne and Wear met county.
At present, any deal is barely at the prospectus stage, which puts the North East at the rear of the chasing pack – albeit comfortably ahead of the West Midlands and the rest of the field. However, returning to my opening theme, what’s the rush?
I was critical in the Post last November of the unseemly dash to announce a manifestly half-baked proposal for a Birmingham and Black Country CA, and we’ve seen how neither Yorkshire CA improved its devolution prospects by similarly going off half-cock.
With no agreed CA membership or name, and no likely agreement to accept the current government’s elected mayoral price of a major devolution deal – fiscal extras included – it’s hard to see why we should jeopardise our best interests by kowtowing to those end-of-term ministers.
* Chris Game is from the Institute of Local Government Studies at the University of Birmingham