Combined authority scrutiny (a little over) six months on

Posted on 16/01/2018 by Ed Hammond.

It’s now been around eight months since the elections for metro Mayors took place. We at the Centre for Governance and Scrutiny naturally have an interest in how Mayors and Combined Authorities are held to account. CAs all have overview and scrutiny committees. We wanted, as the end of the year approached, to think about how the first few months of combined authority scrutiny has been going.

We have published the fruits of our research in full here – this blogpost provides a quick summary. 

Firstly, a couple of caveats. It’s only been a few short months, and the General Election and the summer have intervened. As such it’s too early to draw profound conclusions or draw long-term trends. And our research has been pretty light touch. Having spoken to at least one person involved in scrutiny at each combined authority, and backed up that research with a review of publicly available documents, we can’t claim that this is some PhD-level study. We hope though that it provides a way for us to provoke some debate and discussion about how scrutiny at combined authority level might grow and develop over time.

The findings

Evidence from the combined authorities where scrutiny has been in place longest suggest that teething problems can be resolved, over time. Any such problems do however require effort to overcome. Scrutiny at combined authority level is necessarily different from scrutiny at local level. The uniquely strategic nature of combined authorities’ responsibilities, the nature and the Mayor / CA Board / scrutiny relationship, and resourcing constraints (of which more below) combine to demand this different approach. Areas where members and officers alike have transposed systems and approaches from local authority scrutiny in their area are likely to find such approaches wanting.

This isn’t to say that members and officers do not recognise these challenges. Thoughts and efforts are turning to the need to articulate combined authority  scrutiny’s function and role at the combined authority. However, the resources available to members and officers presents a barrier. Members lack the head space for this kind of reflection. They have other duties and responsibilities back in their home councils. And the run of regular meetings means that longer-term planning which might clarify scrutiny’s role could be pushed to the sidelines.

The importance of scrutiny’s role

This is not the picture in all six areas. We expect that scrutiny in each combined authority will develop in different ways. This reflects the differing powers and personalities of the Mayors, and their relationships with their combined authorities. This divergence is localism in practice. It means that we have to be cautious in making sweeping conclusions about how governance in CAs might develop. What shared experiences do exist suggest the importance of members and officers sitting down to carefully consider and articulate their role.

In practice, what does this mean? There are many roles that combined authority scrutiny might perform. Perhaps taking a leading role in policy development, following and scrutinising Mayoral decision-making, perhaps something else entirely. But deciding on this focus is important if scrutiny is to make the most of its limited member and officer resources. This is a familiar refrain for us. We make the same exhortation to scrutiny in local authorities too.

The best time to do this will probably coming in the coming few months. Scrutiny members will have an opportunity to look back on this year and forward, to the first full year of Mayoral CA operations. What, in that time, will they have learned about what works and what doesn’t? Whatever they decide, it has to be a local decision.

You can see our findings here – or if you’d prefer to view them in a PDF, you can find that here

About the Author: Ed Hammond

Ed leads CfGS's work on devolution, transformation and on support to councils and other public bodies on governance and accountability.