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Dale’s Devo Diary: Combined authority consultation, what consultation?

Dale’s Devo Diary: Combined authority consultation, what consultation?

🕔17.Jul 2015

MPs have criticised the Government for failing to insist on widespread public consultation over proposals by councils to form combined authorities and elect metro mayors.

Under the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill currently passing through Parliament, an existing provision requiring local authorities to consult communities will be watered down.

Ministers say they fear a compulsory drawn-out process of seeking public views will delay devolution deals of the type being put together by the seven West Midlands metropolitan authorities.

But the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Select Committee complained that legislation setting out the process for establishing a combined authority was “wide and vague”.

Committee chair Baroness Fookes, in a letter to Communities Secretary Greg Clark, said she was concerned about the absence in the legislation of any requirement to consult affected persons.

The Bill will allow a combined authority to be established if all the councils involved and the Secretary of State agree that the new body will improve local governance arrangements.

The legislation assumes the councils will have canvassed views, but there is no compulsion to do so.

Baroness Fookes said in the letter:

The Government explained the absence of any consultation requirement on the grounds that it risks delaying the implementation of devolution deals, and because the impact of a deal will be something that the area itself can be expected to have researched and to have included in its conversations with Government.

We find it difficult to accept that, in the context of the transfer of public authority functions to a local authority, the need to act urgently would be so pressing as to justify not consulting those affected by the proposals.

Furthermore, we do not believe that it is appropriate to treat the fact that a local authority may well carry out its own researches as equivalent to a statutory duty to consult.

At the moment there are two stipulations to forming a combined authority:

  • a review must be carried out by one or more of the local authorities which make up the combined authority (including the combined authority itself where the proposals are to make changes to an existing authority);
  • where the review has a positive outcome, the relevant authority or authorities may prepare and publish a scheme proposing the establishment of the combined authority or the making of the changes to an existing authority.

In an amendment to the Devolution Bill the Government states that merely publishing a combined authority scheme will serve as having undertaken consultation.

Baroness Fookes added:

We do not agree with the Government that, because it is not possible to know in advance of discussions with individual authorities what powers they might need, it is necessary to leave the legislative framework as wide and vague as possible. This, we believe, confuses flexibility with imprecision. We see no reason why legislation giving a wide discretion as to the conferring of functions should not, at the same time, give a clear indication of what those functions might be.

The effect of the amendments will be to remove the requirement for this process of local engagement. Where there is no scheme, there will simply remain the existing requirement on the Secretary of State to consult such persons as he or she considers appropriate.

The Minister’s letter states that Amendments 62 and 77 are designed to avoid the need to carry out a review and publish a scheme where to do so would present an unnecessary procedural hurdle and duplicate what has already been done.

The example given is where the proposal for establishing a combined authority had been part of the discussions and negotiations leading to the agreement of a bespoke devolution deal.

We find this explanation entirely unpersuasive. We see the scheme process, which involves local engagement and consultation, as being wholly different from the process of discussion and negotiation which takes place only between the local authorities and the Secretary of State.

One engages wider local interests; the other does not.

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