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Combined Authorities: signs of success

Combined Authorities: signs of success

🕔04.Oct 2017

As the Conservative Party Conference winds up, where Mayor Street and the WMCA team have been active, Chris Game has worked up a league table of Combined Authority perfromance with the help of his new friends at Grant Thornton. 

I noted in a previous Files blog that, while my awareness of the accounting and consultancy firm, Grant Thornton, was once based largely on writing them job references for my undergraduate students, “nowadays, I stumble across GT on virtually a weekly basis”.

Well, make that twice-weekly. First, in GT’s capacity as Birmingham City Council’s official auditor, we had its (repeat) savagely critical report on BCC’s financial management and its doubts about the council’s ability to provide value for money to the taxpayer.

As grim as it is important, it clearly merits at least a blog’s worth of coverage. But I’m afraid this isn’t it.

This blog concerns GT’s other contribution this week to the West Midlands political scene – also topical and noteworthy, but not exactly the stuff of arresting headlines. Another report, but considerably longer, produced in its consultancy role and in conjunction with the law firm, Bond Dickinson: Combined Authorities: signs of success.

They describe it as the first benchmarking report for the performance of Combined Authorities, which is probably fair. It isn’t – and couldn’t be, with our six CA mayors barely into their fifth month of office – a rigorous, or comparative, evaluation.

But it does assemble a good pile of descriptive and statistical material on a broadly comparative basis that both the CAs and we certainly will be able to use as benchmarks in the future: for assessing their success, or otherwise, in taking forward what mostly are currently little more than investment plans and policy proposals.

There’s more to the report than that, though. There are several critical nudges both to CAs themselves and to the ministers who’ve inherited what began as a Treasury devolution initiative, personally driven by Chancellor George Osborne, but that no one has seriously picked up and run with since his departure.

Funding, therefore, remains inconsistent across CAs as well as seriously restricted.  Investment Fund Grants, as noted previously in these columns, vary between areas, and can be “confusing” (p.9) for CAs themselves, never mind for consultants only recently arrived on the scene.

Rather touchingly, they found it “surprisingly difficult [my emphasis] to determine exactly which powers each combined authority has: some powers are statutory, some policy commitments, and some are still emerging from ongoing discussions either with central government or with constituent members” (p.58). There’s loads more of this puzzlement in the same vein – the innocence is really quite moving.

Much funding, they note, is ring-fenced for specific services, which seems inconsistent in an exercise supposedly about devolution. And, like Commons committees, the Centre for Cities, and others before them, they call for “further and more comprehensive financial devolution”, as well as “further powers” to take advantage of the “new impetus provided by elected mayors”.

There are demands too of CAs themselves – including “the need for legibility” (p.62), which shocked me at first. Surely they can afford a few computers and don’t have to rely on handwriting?

But it’s institutional legibility they’re after – most particularly, it would seem, in the WMCA’s case, covering as it does three LEPs and a steadily growing collection of non-constituent councils. CAs must “reduce the institutional blurring with historic local government structures that has occurred with their formation”.

These are valid points, but the core of the GT report is its presentation of comparative data on all nine CAs – including Sheffield City Region, whose devo deal is reportedly “dead in the water”; West Yorkshire, whose new leader wants a county-wide deal that ministers may, or may not, have ruled out; and the North East, which frankly is anyone’s guess.

For these and other reasons, my tabulated summary of some of this statistical data is mostly confined to the six mayoral CAs, as are all the CA rankings. It’s also confined to what I regard as the ‘harder’, more reliable and meaningful data – and therefore excludes GT’s very own and much cherished Vibrant Economy Index, regarding which I have previously outlined reservations.

The statistics were selected for their intended self-evident interest, and, while the rankings are mine, not even these will be discussed individually.

Many of the ‘Highest/best’ rankings, and notably most of those topped by Cambridgeshire & Peterborough CA (with West of England frequently in second place), are unsurprising.

I personally found it pleasing, though, that our region had the highest percentage travelling to work by public transport, and couldn’t help wondering whether a few more doing so might gain us one or two places in the congestion rankings.

More seriously, the top ranking on Business Formation Rates seemed genuinely pleasing.  BUT, and it’s a big one, particularly the first two of the three 6s that immediately follow it are surely a cause for concern, even if hardly hot news.

As the Files editor and dedicated party conference attender – so that we don’t have to – noted in his puff piece on Mayor Andy Street’s Conservative Conference speech, the big mayoral message was that “Addressing skills challenge is my Number One priority”.

Kevin himself, however, seemed underwhelmed, noting it as “something of a new direction for the Mayor. Or, at least, the beginning of a new phase” – and you can see his point of view.

In the first half of then-candidate Andy Street’s Renewal Plan-cum-manifesto there were almost as many mentions of his own skills as of his plans to develop those of others, with the restoration of regional pride, transport, housing and crime at least appearing to be greater priorities.

And – the editor again – “until now, there has been little evidence of work on the skills agenda.”  And therein, I suggest, is the real value of the Grant Thornton benchmarking report. On skills, our benchmark ranking is 6.  It’ll be interesting to see the next edition.

Chamberlain Files will be rounding up developments from the party conferences In the following days, including what Mayor Street has had to say on skills. 

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