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Combined authorities debate at The Guardian’s Local Government Leaders Quarterly
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Combined authorities debate at The Guardian’s Local Government Leaders Quarterly

Last week I spoke at The Guardian's latest Local Government Leaders Quarterly event in Leeds which explored the future of combined local authorities.

I would doubt that there are too many dissenting voices against the proposition that a combined authority is a good thing.  Certainly, when the first, in Greater Manchester, was set up, there seemed to be universal approval.

As a lawyer, I am drawn to the statutory framework which establishes combined authorities.  It is by definition of quite limited application - transport, economic development and regeneration.  As someone who is a student and lifelong advocate of local government, I couldn't help being slightly disappointed with the narrow scope of this.  Why couldn't the government at the time give more?  After all, these functions are already there in the passenger transport authorities and the local authorities themselves.  If the coalition government, which inherited the powers is serious about localism, it could surely devolve more to the combined authorities.  There are some encouraging signs, however, such as the potential devolution of the regional rail franchising from DFT.

The powers have been amended to give general competence powers (worded slightly differently from Section 1 in the Localism Act and more like Section 111 incidental powers), but with restrictions such as the requirement to use a company if the general power is used for a commercial purpose.  So a potentially useful framework to expand the role is there, but with limitations. 

But what about the local authorities?  This need not be a one way street of devolution from government. Existing local government powers of delegation and powers to contract with other authorities are available to enable the combined authority to be utilised as a vehicle for sub-regional delivery of services.  Shared Services still have a patchy record, but there is potential here to utilise the combined authority for more.  Some services might fit reasonably well.  Highways functions fits nicely with transport (if Highways Agency powers were devolved in combination, this would give a logical body of power and the bigger functional area might deliver a more joined up service for the benefits of the road user and more efficiencies. 

Being more imaginative, what about museums and the arts.  Come the real spending cuts pressure (the Museums in Manchester, Bradford and York are currently under threat) one feels that a regional approach might both preserve more through efficiencies and give capacity to attract outside funding.  The value of the creative arts to economic regeneration is very well documented.

I could go on – but before you know it, we might be recreating the Metropolitan County Councils – and I am not sure if that would get universal support, even if the Greater London Authority managed to rise from the ashes of the similarly abolished Greater London Council. 

At our annual Public Sector conference in April, my colleague, Helen Randall, succinctly observed that "local government is the only universally cohesive force to lead communities in these difficult times.  Hence it is the only hope for leading social and economic growth in this country."  I am sure Lord Heseltine would agree too.  I am pleased that we have local government structures like the combined authorities to move forward the regeneration agenda and not central government or non accountable bodies alone.

The power of local government to achieve great things for the economy couldn't be better exemplified by the audacious coup by the local civic leaders in bringing the Tour de France to Yorkshire next year.  Estimates suggest that three million people will descend on the county to support what I can assure you is the greatest show on earth.  To persuade the French to bring their national treasure to the land of curd tarts, Tetley bitter and Rugby league, without government or governing body support, is really quite remarkable.