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All together now: legislative reform could give local authorities greater flexibility to combine
Trowers Public Insight

All together now: legislative reform could give local authorities greater flexibility to combine

The Department for Communities and Local Government consultation on legislative reform to give local authorities greater flexibility in forming a combined authority or economic prosperity board closed on 26 January 2015.

With combined authority proposals being put forward or agreed in Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire and Sheffield, the West Midlands and Liverpool City, it is clear that combined authorities are emerging as the preferred vehicle to establish joint working relationships. With all three main political parties also mooting great devolution as part of their election campaigns - it makes sense for local authorities to give consideration to combined authorities, as they appear to be the obvious vehicle to grant greater powers to.

A combined authority is a type of authority established pursuant to sections 103-113 of the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009.  Those provisions, which only apply to England, permit local authorities to come together to undertake joint functions through the combined authority which has its own legal personality.

In order to do so a review process must be undertaken which recommends the establishment of the combined authority and the publication of a scheme.  After a consultation period is undertaken the Secretary of State can establish a combined authority pursuant to a statutory instrument. Accordingly the process itself is not onerous.

The functions of a combined authority are set out in the relevant order but may include transport and economic development. Combined authorities also have their own version of the general power of competence as introduced in the Localism Act 2011.

However the current legislative framework has its limitations including the inability to include only part of a local authority's area in a combined authority, for it not to be possible for combined authorities to include areas that do have non-contiguous borders and local authorities cannot be members of more than one combined authority.

The consultation undertaken by DCLG sets out a number of proposals to update the way in which combined authorities are established and operate, these include enabling council's with non-contiguous borders to join or form combined authorities, permitting county councils to delegate or share their transport function with a combined authority for part of the county council's area and simplify the administrative processes involved in making changes to existing combined authorities.

It is clear that the purpose of the consultation is to overcome the perceived limitations of a combined authority.  Depending on the outcome of the consultation and the subsequent legislative reform, it is likely that further combined authorities will be created as set out above.

When George Osborne announced the proposal for the Greater Manchester Agreement in November 2014, this was seen as a precursor to the potential increase in powers of combined authorities.  The agreement establishes a directly elected  Mayor for the Greater Manchester area and permits the elected Mayor to exercise greater powers and avail itself to greater resources (including becoming the Police and Crime Commissioner for Greater Manchester). With Manchester leading the way in terms of the potential powers that combined authorities can possess, and the clear desire from central government to support combined authorities, there may be no option for local authorities but to consider their formation.

For now we wait to see the outcome of the consultation and how those combined authorities that have already been established impact on an ever changing local government landscape.

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