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Manchester and West Midlands devolution deals are just the beginning

Officials whisper about the abolition of combined authorities. But they are already having success through partnership and experimentation.

By Jack Shaw

The number of city region mayors in England is growing, and so too is their strength. A new tier of devolution known as trailblazer deals is giving Greater Manchester and the West Midlands greater influence over key areas of policy: local transport is being expanded by the two regions’ combined authorities through partnerships such as the Great British Railways; the city regions now have the ability to co-design employer support programmes with the government; there’s a closer relationship with Homes England to support housebuilding; and they have a new, more flexible funding settlement (though how flexible that’ll be is subject to negotiation).

These trailblazer deals are expected to be spread to other areas of the country, and a new tranche is now being negotiated, with South Yorkshire, West Yorkshire, Liverpool, Tees Valley and the North East seen as the frontrunners. A process is also expected to be established that provides a formal route for combined authorities who do not secure trailblazer deals in the coming months to do so in the future. This’ll give them much-needed clarity, but it’ll also enable the government to avoid striking deals with combined authorities impaired by poor governance or complex structures. Those in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, and the West of England, are often said to need more time to establish themselves as governing organisations.

Though the conditions the government will insist on before it proceeds with further devolution remains unclear, a robust accountability regime is expected to be an important feature. In March the government suggested that, like the Greater London Authority, combined authorities will be held accountable by MPs through “Mayors’ Question Time”. 

The trailblazer negotiations also reveal that combined authorities and their priorities are evolving. One example of this evolution is the growing recognition of the role strategic partnerships can play in better equipping combined authorities to drive change across their city regions.

One senior figure I spoke to described how the “hungry hippos” approach to negotiating settlements – where combined authorities make the case for a “menu of powers” – is giving way to a more mature relationship based on partnership, co-design and greater agency. There was also an acknowledgement that seeking more investment or new statutory responsibilities risks creating “fatigue” in Whitehall. Building partnerships, which are an easier concession to negotiate, mitigates that risk.

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The priority given to culture, sport and tourism in facilitating economic growth is a case in point. Combined authorities such as Greater Manchester want to adopt a more strategic approach in partnership with Arts Council England and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

Some may want to take responsibilities from the Arts Council for themselves, but combined authorities are also pragmatic. They expect it and other national agencies to recognise their democratic mandate and work more closely with them, yet combined authorities value the role that the Arts Council and others play in the creative industries. Forging partnerships will strengthen authorities’ impact, where deposing the Arts Council and re-allocating its investment to them would not. It’s entirely unclear whether combined authorities have the personnel, experience and knowledge to perform that role effectively without a collaborative approach given some of them have as little as one hundred employees (according to a Freedom of Information request I pursued last year).

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The opportunities of partnerships are well understood. Combined authorities want to work with the Arts Council to increase the number of national arts programmes based outside of the south-east of England, make better use of its assets to improve place-making, promote local identity and civic pride, support existing creative institutions locally, and facilitate economic growth in the creative industries.

Oliver Coppard, the mayor of South Yorkshire, is making the case for the sub-region to oversee four music hubs that are currently managed separately – in partnership with the Arts Council. With four Local Visitor Economy Partnerships responsible for promoting tourism in Yorkshire across four combined authorities, new pan-regional partnerships may develop over time there too. 

And there are other areas where combined authorities are seeking to embed themselves by working with national agencies that already operate in their patch. South Yorkshire wants a statutory responsibility to chair the Integrated Care Partnership – especially given the prevalence of working-age adults across the region out of work because of long-term health conditions.

Meanwhile West Yorkshire wants to build on the “strategic place partnership” it has with Homes England so that England’s housing and regeneration agency invests in the sub-region in a smarter way. In its Autumn Statement submission the combined authority stopped short of calling for the Affordable Homes Programme to be devolved, however. West Yorkshire also sees itself playing a formal role in Local Skills and Improvement Plans – which are currently led chiefly by Chambers of Commerce – and wants to work more closely with the Department for Work and Pensions.

As combined authorities mature, prioritising new partnerships and embedding themselves within the work of a plethora of national agencies reflects their evolving views of how best to drive change in their sub-regions. This evolution does not suggest that combined authorities no longer seek further statutory responsibilities. In fact, addressing the challenges facing our climate, health and economy all require significant investment and new responsibilities. But embedding themselves further in the institutional landscape reduces the risk of combined authorities being scrapped by any incoming government. Few envision that as a likely prospect, and Labour certainly is unlikely to sour on the ongoing projects, but that has not stopped officials inside and outside of Whitehall whispering of it as a possibility – and they wouldn’t be the first to fall victim to Whitehall’s endless regional policy churn.

[See also: The new radical? What to expect from the shadow levelling-up secretary]

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