Published on Wednesday, 17th February 2016

 

Recent press statements from leading players in Hampshire local politics chime with something I have been hearing privately for a while, namely that Hampshire’s bid to create a Combined Authority is not likely to succeed – at least at this point.

 

Combined Authorities are the government’s preferred vehicle for providing at least some equity for England following the massive transfers of powers to devolved assemblies in Scotland and to a lesser extend in Wales. They are a means of allowing some local control over Whitehall expenditure.

 

Combined authority boundaries are agreed locally, but the ones so far have been county sized at a minimum. Decisions are made collectively by council leaders, usually with an elected mayor, who has considerable powers granted to him or her directly. With a few modest exceptions, tax raising powers stay with the government.

 

Any deal has to be signed off by government and there are two main sticking points blocking a local deal: the government’s insistence on having an elected mayor and demands over housing numbers.

 

Nine deals have either been agreed to date or are on the verge of being so. Most cover large urban areas. Five of the six metropolitan counties that were abolished in the 1980s are effectively being reformed as Combined Authorities. A further two deals cover the urban north east and a two county area is planned for Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. Cornwall is also to get its own scheme. Only the latter does not have an elected mayor - and that is simply because the area covered is that of just one council.

 

The other sensitive area is housing numbers, with the government keen to see much more development. That would affect rural councils much more than Portsmouth and is widely seen as unacceptable.

 

On the other side of the argument are the powers a Combined Authority would actually have. Despite the emphasis placed by government on agreeing local arrangements, all the recent deals have started to look broadly the same. The emerging template is that:

 

  • The Mayor would have personal responsibility for bus services, a core road network made up of local authority roads and a capital investment fund for transport

 

  • The council leaders and Mayor would have control together over adult skills and employment training and a capital investment fund.

 

  • There would be a regional development plan put forward by the Mayor but which any district can veto.

 

  • In some areas the Mayor would have powers over government land and have the power to overturn the refusal of planning permission on major sites.

 

  • It is likely that extra responsibilities will be devolved over time.

 

All-in-all then this is a lot less revolutionary than originally billed, with many of the responsibilities of the new regional Mayors taken from local government rather than from Whitehall. On the flipside, there does seem to be additional funding for infrastructure.

 

One way or another this model of government is going to be rolled out across the country and within a few years there will be a Combined Authority covering this area whatever anyone says now. The deal on offer does offer something real, but it is perhaps not enough to make the case in favour overwhelming and I feel comfortable waiting for the moment and seeing what happens next.


Tags: Combined Authority