BLOG: The “Scrutiny Protocol” – new arrangements for scrutiny in combined authorities
Last month (November 2023) saw the long-awaited publication of the “scrutiny protocol” – Government guidance for combined authorities on how their overview and scrutiny arrangements are meant to operate.
It feels trite to describe CA scrutiny as “neglected” (besides, *we* haven’t neglected it – it has formed an important part of our funded work in recent years). But there is no question that it, and governance more generally at combined authority level, were initially treated by Government (and other partners) as marginal issues – certainly during the 2015 to 2017 period, Government’s view was that effective scrutiny of combined authorities was delivered by having a Mayor who was directly elected every few years.
This has now decisively changed. The Protocol is not a standalone document – understanding where it comes from, and where it sits, is an important part of understanding its purpose.
It forms part of the wider “English Devolution Accountability Framework”, through which Government hopes to bring more rigour, consistency and transparency to the way that combined authorities carry out their work – and to bring a higher profile to good governance as a key element of CAs’ effectiveness. The renewed focus on good governance derives in part from the vision set out in the Levelling-Up White Paper, which sees it as central to devolution being able to deliver for local areas. Such is Government’s focus that adherence to the Protocol is expected of those areas aspiring to (or signatories to) Level 3 or Level 4 deals.
The Protocol sets out Government’s expectations in how overview and scrutiny will be carried out in combined authorities – and also requires CAs to arrange public question time sessions for Mayors. This is an intriguing development, mirroring similar arrangements in Greater Manchester and in London, where the annual “State of London Debate” provides an important, if not always hugely visible, opportunity for direct Mayoral accountability to the public.
The Guidance has no formal legal force for CA areas, but Government has made it clear that adherence to it will be important for those areas that want to progress to deeper deals. Those areas will have a year to demonstrate compliance.
CfGS was pleased to have been consulted in depth on the Protocol and its contents, and we participated in a consultation process led by DLUHC involving governance professionals working across all existing Mayoral CAs in the summer and early autumn. (You may ask, “why were councillors not involved in this process?”, and I’m afraid I don’t have an answer for you).
Modesty forbids our mentioning that the Protocol is heavily based on work that we carried out for the Greater Manchester Combined Authority last year. In our view this represents a potential weakness in the Protocol’s formulation and wording. Solutions designed for GM will not always be relevant to the needs of others. The Protocol’s unusually directive stance on key matters (for example, work programming) brings with it a risk of an overly rigid approach, and one that may not be right for some MCAs.
In most respects, however, the Protocol reflects a model of scrutiny that would be focused, and directed towards the development of policy as well as proportionate oversight over performance matters.
The relevance of the protocol for CAs is self-evident. But are there wider implications for local authority scrutiny? In our publication, “Overview and scrutiny in combined authorities: a plain English guide” (2021) we note that CA scrutiny and LA scrutiny are very different in terms of focus and role. But there are clear areas of similarity – the importance of prioritisation, the need for timely access to information, the vital importance of independent leadership. We think that in areas with CAs, the approach of constituent authorities to scrutiny will end up being informed by CA scrutiny’s priorities – because local councillors will sit on the CA scrutiny and bring practice back but also because CA scrutiny will want and need to work with constituent LAs to maximise its impact.
Does this risk a homogeneity in scrutiny in combined authority areas? Possibly. It could also create the minor headaches that sometimes affect scrutiny in two-tier areas, where there can occasionally be an awkward overlap between district and county scrutiny activity. But the potential – for things like joint working, and for informing an agenda on economic development which will not go away whatever the result of the next general election – is significant.
We are continuing our work supporting CA scrutiny – in particular through our ongoing support for the Combined Authorities Governance Network, an informal grouping of governance professionals in current and prospective CAs, which we convene. If you are working in an area that is “doing a deal” with Government and involved in leading on developing and securing the governance arrangements that will back up that deal, please get in touch and we will invite you to the next meeting. You can reach us at email@example.com, or me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.