Local government in England comes in many different formats, unitary, district and county councils all cover different parts of the country. In recent years, mayoral combined authorities have become an established part of the English constitutional set-up – if Greater London is included, 41 percent of England’s population (representing 43 percent of economic output but just 14 percent of land area) now lives in areas with some form of mayoral devolution deal.
Metro mayors themselves have come to increasing prominence in recent years, notably since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.Turnout increased in the 2021 combined authority mayoral elections, compared to the same contests in 2017. The Tees Valley election witnessed the most significant turnout change in 2021, with incumbent mayor Ben Houchen being re-elected with a 12.7 percentage point increase in turnout.
What are combined authorities?
Combined authorities (CAs) are formed by the coming together of two or more unitary authorities, which agree to a bespoke ‘devo deal’ with central government in order to obtain some devolved powers. There are now 10 combined authorities in England, nine of which have a directly elected ‘metro mayor’ (mayoral combined authorities or MCAs). The North East Combined Authority does not have an elected mayor.
Directly elected mayors are seen as key to the success of the combined authority model of devolution, as they can provide a single, clear point of accountability, while being supported by a cabinet made up of local authority leaders and representatives of local economic sectors. By speaking ‘with a single and democratically mandated voice’ for their local area, mayors are seen as offering visibility for their community at the national level. Their election via the Supplementary Vote helps prevent unpopular candidates being elected on a small share of the vote, as can happen under First Past the Post, thereby ensuring that these important executive roles can command the support of a broad range of voters.
Why were combined authorities established?
The impetus for the ‘devo deals’ and the creation of mayoral combined authorities can be found in the aftermath of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. In addition to promising further devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, then Prime Minister David Cameron announced that there would be a ‘wider civic engagement about how to improve governance in our United Kingdom, including how to empower our great cities.’
This policy was based upon a plethora of think tank reports published in 2014 and which, in turn, drew upon the 2012 independent report by Lord Heseltine on how to increase UK growth, which had proposed a fully unitary system of local government in England.
The first devolution deal, for the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, was announced in November 2014. Following the 2015 general election, the Conservative government set out its commitment ‘to building strong city regions led by elected mayors, building on the ground-breaking devolution deal with Greater Manchester in November 2014.’
To date, all devolution deals have initially been negotiated and agreed in separate, private, meetings between government teams and local authority leaders. After a deal was agreed and published, the local councils involved had to approve their participation in the deal (‘ratification’).
How does devolution work in combined authorities?
Devo deals typically consist of a ‘menu with specials’, with each metro mayor having different powers and budgets. Most deals include the devolution of powers around further education, business support, economic development, planning and land use, and local transport. In some cases, such as Greater Manchester, unique powers (the ‘specials’) are devolved as well, such as over housing and health.
Metro mayors make decisions about policy and spending alongside local authority leaders in their area, who may have different political standpoints or belong to different parties, and decisions must be signed off by a majority of council leaders. Metro mayors retain an effective veto over combined authority decisions in most areas, meaning their approval is needed to take a decision forward. Important decisions, such as on spending or local transport plans, can be rejected by a two-thirds majority of council leaders. Some decisions require unanimous approval from the mayor and CA members. This is unlike the situation in London, where the mayor can take decisions without reference to the boroughs.
Unlike arrangements in Scotland and Wales, and the London mayoralty, metro mayors are still a weak institution – they have limited powers and resources, lack meaningful control over funding and spending decisions, and cannot determine their own priorities where these diverge from the centre. But in spite of their few formal powers, mayors have sought to increase their clout in other ways. For example, they have taken on ‘orphan policies’, where no level of government has a clear duty to act, such as tackling homelessness or improving mental health provision. As shown during the coronavirus pandemic, mayors can also command attention from the national media, unlike other local government leaders.
Where next for metro mayors and combined authorities?
The government’s recently published levelling up white paper commits to extending and deepening devolution across England, including in mayoral combined authorities. The white paper makes it clear that the government’s preferred devolution model remains the mayoral one, with the highest level of devolved powers being available to areas with a single institution or county council and a directly elected mayor. A new MCA will be agreed with York and North Yorkshire, and existing MCAs will be expanded including in the North East, Greater Manchester and the West Midlands. The latter two will be able to access ‘trailblazer deals’ for further powers.
It is crucial that the targets set out in the levelling up white paper to extend and deepen devolution across England by 2030 are met. To date, progress on devolution has been very slow – almost 10 years after the first devolution deals were agreed, nowhere has yet the same powers as Greater Manchester.
Citizens themselves should also be much more involved in discussing the future of their communities, including around devolution and local government reform, as the ERS has long called for. Citizen involvement during the ‘devo deals’ negotiations was limited and this impacted public support for and legitimacy in these institutions.
Recent government proposals raise further concerns about the extent to which it is committed to ensuring local communities have a strong voice and representation. The Elections Bill currently making its way through parliament would change the method by which metro mayors, alongside local authority mayors and Police and Crime Commissioners, are elected from the Supplementary Vote to First Past the Post.
Scrapping the Supplementary Vote in favour of First Past the Post would be a step back for voters. The Supplementary Vote has been used for over 20 years and is an improvement on First Past the Post, which forces voters to vote tactically. Rather than making elections more accessible and enhancing participation, this addition to the Elections Bill would lead to voters having less of a say in our democratic processes.
Find out more about English local government and how it can be reformed, in the latest ERS report Democracy Made in England.
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