The Chamberlain Files | Homepage
Combined Authorities ARE local government: WMCA CEO learns the hard way

Combined Authorities ARE local government: WMCA CEO learns the hard way

🕔26.Feb 2018

Want a recipe for a one-day conference leaving your austerity-battered punters feeling both happy and entertained?  Try this: pick a plush venue in London Town, get one of your three keynote speakers to daringly advocate a policy with which almost all delegates will agree, and have the other two argue between themselves.

Well, judging from the twitter, it seemed to work for last Thursday’s ‘Assembly of Changemakers’ organised by the independent think tank, New Local Government Network (NLGN) in London Guildhall’s Grade II-listed Livery Hall, writes Chris Game.

The first speaker was Nicky Morgan, ex-Education Secretary and currently Chair of the Treasury Select Committee. After serving for years in governments that have ideologically resisted pleas from local government to lift the artificial cap on councils’ borrowing, allowing them to build more affordable homes, while creating employment and adding billions to the economy at the same time, Ms Morgan has now changed her mind, or at least her job.

She was therefore able to report, and be applauded for, the Treasury Committee’s recommendation (para.100) in its January report on the Autumn Budget that:

in order to increase Local Authority construction to levels sufficient to meet the Government’s 300,000 target, the Housing Revenue Account borrowing cap should be removed. Raising the cap would have no material impact on the national debt, but could result in a substantial increase in the supply of housing, allowing local authorities to determine the level of additional housing needed in their area [emphasis added]

It would be OK, then, to remove the cap to meet a central government target, but heaven forfend that elected councils should be allowed to make their own judgements about their own housing finance needs.

In truth, a politician changing or finding their mind shortly after losing their ministerial salary isn’t exactly headline-making.  However, a keynote speaker changing their mind while still proverbially on the podium – well, that sounds more interesting.

The speaker here was Deborah Cadman, the still comparatively new Chief Executive of the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA).  Reportedly, when questioned on what councils can expect to happen in unpredictable times, her reply was that “It’s about you – I’m not local government, I’m a combined authority”.

Personally, had I been there, I’d have been so distracted by this pronouncement alone that I’d scarcely have followed what came next. For it’s one of those really rare figures of speech without, it seems, a technical name.

We all know about the ‘Royal we’, or ‘pluralis majestatis’, or ‘nosism’ (from the Latin first person plural ‘nos’) – as in Margaret Thatcher’s declaration that “we are a grandmother”.

But still, even after a year of Trump, there’s seemingly no precise antonym for nosism: referring to oneself in the first personal singular as a whole institution. Yes, there’s egoism and me-ism, but I’m really not going there with someone whose appointment I rather approved of.

Anyway, questioned about her comment, Ms Cadman explained:

I don’t think [combined authorities] are [part of local government]. That is the beauty of them.

Now, even forgetting the pronouns, to a bunch of local government people attending a local government conference, this is going to sound pretty contentious. Or, indeed, just plain wrong.

Another small diversion – please excuse. I used occasionally to use a local government adaptation of Mahatma Gandhi’s famous response to the question, “What do you think of Western Civilisation?”: “I think it would be a good idea”.

When asked what I really thought about British local government, I’d reply that I thought British local government would similarly be a good idea – with the emphasis heavily on the ‘local’.

I’d then explain that the average population size of councils in UK residents’ most local tier of our ‘local government’ – well over 150,000 – is roughly 16 times that of the average OECD country, and far too large and consequently remote from those residents to be considered any kind of positive exemplar.

In my view, genuine local government, using ‘local’ in the sense most of us do when referring to the pub, shops, park or pretty well anything else, would – not least in Birmingham – be a good and even exciting idea.

But that’s definitely not what Ms Cadman had in mind. After all, she’s just come from Suffolk County Council, with a population of about 750,000, and I’m sure she thought she was, or was at least part of, ‘local government’ there.

Indeed, its population is bigger than that of Teesside CA and it covers nearly five times the area, so it couldn’t be a size thing at all that she had in mind.

At first, it seems, it wasn’t at all clear what point she was trying to make, or what distinction she was trying to draw. After all, Wikipedia seems clear enough:

A Combined Authority is a type of local government institution introduced in England outside Greater London by the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009.

And if, understandably, you harbour doubts about Wiki, then try the National Audit Office’s definition:

Combined authorities are corporate bodies formed of two or more local government areas, [to] enable groups of two or more councils to take decisions across boundaries on issues which extend beyond the interests of any one individual local authority.

In fact, strikingly like how two-tier local government works in places like Suffolk.

There’s loads more references to similar effect, as probably most in the Livery Hall would have known – though few better than the other guest speaker, Sir Richard Leese, longstanding Leader of Manchester City Council, currently one of Mayor Andy Burnham’s Deputy Mayors on the Greater Manchester CA, and one of the very first to recognise and exploit the potential of the original CA legislation cited by Wiki.

Not surprisingly, Leese demurred, making it clear that this wasn’t a question of semantics, of subtle differences in connotative meanings. This was legal-based definitional stuff:

Combined authorities are fundamentally local government. They were created that way. In a Combined Authority, local authorities are the leader. Statutorily they are local authorities; in terms of their functions they are local authorities. Combined Authorities happened because local authorities asked for them …” [emphasis added]

There was more, but even here Sir Richard didn’t seem keen to allow his fellow speaker much wriggle-room – as Ms Cadman must quickly have realised, and her response seemed a bit lame.

She suggested she “felt differently” from Sir Richard because she worked for Andy Street, who “is from the private sector and has a different view of the world”.

She noted that CA mayors have “freedoms and flexibilities that leaders of place don’t have. That does make it feel different” – though, of course, Sheffield, the North East and West Yorkshire CAs don’t actually have mayors.

And in the end she effectively conceded that CAs are “of” local government, as “I can’t deliver the half a million new jobs we are trying to do and that massive investment. I can’t do that directly, I have to do that through local government.”

It seemed like a re-run of Street’s own learning experience with his attempted and rejected council tax precept; just surprising that it seemed to have taken Ms Cadman, with her infinitely greater public administration experience, rather longer.

Similar Articles

May must be near – councils are in the news

May must be near – councils are in the news 0

You know May is approaching, not with an upturn in the weather, but when local

Midlands Engine £250M Fund on roadshow rollout

Midlands Engine £250M Fund on roadshow rollout 0

300 business leaders and financial experts gathered at Millennium Point yesterday for the Midlands Finance &

Birmingham’s urban renaissance continues – but planning reforms needed

Birmingham’s urban renaissance continues – but planning reforms needed 0

A new report reveals the extent of urban transformation in Birmingham in recent decades –

nextbike to roll out cycles in the West Midlands

nextbike to roll out cycles in the West Midlands 0

The world’s biggest bike-share operator has been chosen to deliver pedal power to the West

Midlands UK reports success at MIPIM

Midlands UK reports success at MIPIM 0

Billions, thousands, hundreds and tens. The numbers are starting to flow as the Midlands Engine

About Author

Chamberlain Files Weekly

Don't miss a thing! Sign up for our free weekly summary of the Chamberlain Files from RJF Public Affairs.
* = required field

powered by MailChimp!

Our latest tweets

Published by

Published by


Our community