1. Governance
June 1, 2015

What is in the government's city devolution bill?

By Ben Harrison

Hot on the heels of the Queen’s Speech, last week Britain’s Department for Communities & Local Government published the first draft of the Cities & Local Government Devolution Act 2015. The bill sets out more detail on how the Chancellor’s offer of more powers for those areas with a combined authority and directly elected mayor will actually be delivered.

Of course the legislation only sets out legal changes that are required to make these new bodies and functions possible. In that sense, the bill sets out the institutional framework within which future political deals or trades will be made between combined authorities and central government, but it does not give further detail on what they might include.

Nevertheless, now that we have sight of the bill itself, what are the key provisions that those across UK cities and local authorities need to be aware of?

New powers and their application

As promised, the provisions in the bill are deliberately generic. That means while the bill will be used to confirm the Greater Manchester Devolution Deal, it can be applied by order to specified combined authorities as they come forward. 

Critically the measures contained in the bill will only apply in England and in Wales. The legislation does not cover Scotland or Northern Ireland, which may have an impact on the journey of the bill through parliament.

The bill allows for a mayor to be elected to lead a combined authority, who would exercise specified functions and chair the authority itself. The potential powers, or functions, of the Mayor outlined by the bill also appear to be deliberately flexible. The bill states that 

The Secretary of State may by order make provision for any function of a mayoral combined authority to be a function exercisable only by the mayor

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This, following an amendment to the original legislation for combined authorities, will extend more broadly than the economic development, regeneration and transport functions that such bodies are currently limited to. It’ll include for example, the functions of police and crime commissioners.

In addition, the bill states that 

The Secretary of State may by order make provision for a function of a public authority that is exercisable in relation to a combined authority’s area to be a function of the combined authority

Interestingly it goes on to qualify that, in this context, “public authority” only refers to central government departments and ministries, and not to county councils or district councils. The bill is clear, that for those local public bodies to cede ancillary powers, they must themselves consent.

The bill also makes it explicit that should the constituent authorities provide their consent, the combined authority can assume the “General Power of Competence” as outlined in the Localism Act of 2011. That power has rarely been invoked or tested to date, but in theory it allows for local government to pursue any activity that is not explicitly prohibited by central government.

Governance and scrutiny procedures

As expected, combined authority areas will need to submit their proposals for a directly elected mayor to the communities secretary. But there are provisions in the bill which appear to be an attempt to avoid situations in which one dissenting constituent body of an existing combined authority could block the introduction of a mayor for the area. Under such circumstances, the secretary of state would issue an order essentially removing the non-consenting body from the combined authority arrangement.

The bill also sets out a number of specific governance requirements for these combined authority arrangements, including:

1) The mayor for a combined authority will be required to appoint a deputy mayor, drawn from one of the constituent authority leaders, to whom he can delegate roles and powers as he sees fit. This deputy will step in and assume mayoral responsibilities should the mayor be unable to fulfil them. In any circumstances where neither the mayor or a deputy can discharge his or her duties, the combined authority leaders will take decisions on a majority vote basis;

2) A combined authority mayor will only be able to appoint one political advisor;

3) The secretary of state can set the timing for mayoral elections and the terms of office to be served The bill also sets out that, as in London, the supplementary vote system will be used to elect the mayor, unless there are only two candidates;

4) The mayor would have to approve any subsequent change of the combined authority boundary; and,

5) Existing scrutiny committees and arrangements for combined authorities will essentially be extended to cover the new mayoral functions. But – the government reserves the right to say no.

Finally, it is interesting to note that the bill does provide the secretary of state with the room to say no to a combined authority application. Specifically the bill states that they may allow a mayoral combined authority only if he or she considers that the “making of the order is likely to improve the exercise of statutory functions in the area or areas to which the order relates”. The final say, in other words, remains as ever with the government.

Ben Harrison is director of partnerships at the Centre for Cities.

This article was originally published on the think tank’s blog.

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