Devolution and combined authorities: common themes so far

Posted on 25/06/2021 by Kate Grigg.

This week we published two practical guides for those involved, or with an interest in, local governance, combined authorities (CAs) and devolution.

Our COVID-19 ‘lessons learnt’ style debrief highlights the governance changes that took place within CAs as they responded to the crisis and considers the governance risks as we enter the recovery phase.

Our toolkit for areas considering establishing a CA has been designed to capture the governance challenges and practical considerations on the path to devolution.

There are a few common themes throughout both of these guides:

  • Recognising the bespoke nature of CAs’ deals with Government and the partners involved in their set-up, meaning that governance has to be designed and managed to meet specific regional needs.
  • Resilient and robust governance – devolution being a process, not an event, means that although local outcomes are imperative, devolved arrangements will continue to evolve, and CAs will need clear accountability, organisational capacity, flexibility and sustainability to develop and deal with future unexpected shocks.
  • The democratic element, the involvement of the public in current and future devolved arrangements. How they are able to input into the articulation of local priorities and how their ongoing participation in decision-making is formally designed into governance. 

This is not the first time we have expressed our position on how devolved arrangements must take into consideration the uniqueness of place, the need for resilient and robust governance and the democratic argument that will give devolution long-term salience.

Earlier this year CfGS contributed to the Devolution All Party Parliamentary Group Inquiry into the role that central government has in making a success of devolution in England.

The APPG report cited our thinking on the current deal-making process, “negotiations need to move away from a central-local pivot, and towards being treated as a local matter for the devolved area and its constituent authorities to work through to their satisfaction.”

It mentioned our thoughts on the role of devolved areas during the pandemic, “the success of the local response has largely been based upon having a single mission across all partners in an area, driving all resources in the same direction and towards a common goal…One of the biggest problems is that there has been no way for vast swathes of the country, experiencing peaks or troughs of coronavirus, to articulate a different set of policy preferences based on their reality on the ground.”

The report included our opinions on robust governance and accountability, “it is not entirely clear to whether the Mayor is accountable to Government or to local voters…. The onus needs to be on accountability of a Mayor, of a CA, to local people in that area, rather than central Government holding devolved areas to account. Mayors are in practice also held accountable by the press and public for things they are not actually responsible for – due to their visibility as the local figurehead and understandable confusion around where responsibility lies.”

It also referenced our reflections on the lack of public involvement in devolution thus far, “devolution deals have tended to follow power-hoarding tendencies, restricting the capacity for localities and citizens to be active in asserting the outcomes. Whilst local business communities – through the LEPs – have been involved in the devolution process, wider civic society including higher education institutions and the voluntary sector have been largely ignored.”

Hopefully the Government’s upcoming Levelling-up White Paper will provide clarity on the policy objective of devolution and go beyond ‘function-specific deals’ to allow Mayors to play a fuller role and for CAs to act in a more integrated and strategic way. We argued that the White Paper should be co-produced with local stakeholders involving an open discussion on what powers and resources devolved institutions need. Although this is now looking like an unlikely prospect.

Whatever the outcomes of the White Paper, we will continue to provide support to existing and emerging CAs in maintaining resilient and robust arrangements to ensure good governance.


About the Author: Kate Grigg

Kate works across the CfGS research and consultancy programmes, supporting projects in local government and the corporate sector, and facilitating the combined authorities goverance network.