‘Good, bad and ugly’ news as city region devolution deals drag on
There’s good, bad and indifferent news today for supporters of devolution.
The good news is the Government is pressing ahead with plans to put transport bodies like Transport for the North on a statutory footing.
Once that happens, the new West Midlands Combined Authority will be able to apply to have its transport authority recognised in statute, unleashing powers similar to those already enjoyed by Transport for London – making it far easier to introduce the much talked about Midland oyster card that could be used on all local train, tram and bus services.
The bad news is that a Leeds City Region devolution deal, announced by the Government earlier in the year, is in danger of collapsing, according to a report by the Local Government Chronicle.
The authoritative town hall magazine says “expectations have all but died” that a devolution deal for Leeds and other Yorkshire councils will be confirmed by the Chancellor in the Autumn Spending Review later this month.
A major stumbling block appears to be whether it is worth adopting an elected mayor in return for the powers on offer from the Government, which council leaders claim do not significantly add to what the region has already gained under previous deals.
The mayoral conundrum – the Government will not grant maximum devolution to city regions unless councils agree to a metro mayor – is also a difficult issue in the West Midlands where there is little sign of progress towards a deal two and half months after the seven metropolitan councils lodged a draft submission with the Treasury.
Sceptics say the proposed West Midlands deal, worth about £9 billion over 30 years, is not sufficient reward for the “political disruption” of agreeing to have a mayor who would have powers to raise council tax and business rates.
In July, the Leeds region was named by the Chancellor as one of the forerunners in the race to gain control over new powers and budgets.
However, a wrangle over the best geography for Yorkshire devolution deal or deals has complicated negotiations.
Local leaders met Commercial Secretary Lord O’Neill and Communities Secretary Greg Clark last month.
In a briefing to councillors, obtained by Local Government Chronicle, Kirklees Metropolitan Council leader David Sheard (Lab) said local leaders expressed
concern that the deal that had been put to us three weeks ago had since been withdrawn (or watered down).
Cllr Sheard said leaders
could see no reason to accept an elected mayor if we were offered much less that [sic] Sheffield or the North East.
He added a “mayoral veto had been introduced at the last minute” into the proposed deal and so leaders left the meeting with ministers “no further forward”.
The Leeds City Region already has control of an investment fund – a common feature of devolution deals to date – worth up to £600 million over 20 years as part of its 2014 growth deal.
A devolution deal concluded in March gave the region’s councils control of the area’s adult skills budget and a share of the apprenticeship grant for employers, key features of recently agreed devolution deals with the Sheffield City Region and North East combined authorities.
Additional freedoms being sought as part of the latest round of negotiations include powers to manage European funding and run bus services.
The ability to raise a levy on the council tax base to help pay for infrastructure improvements had also been proposed but Local Government Chronicle has reported that Mr Clark is not willing to entertain that idea at present.
The Leeds City Region is led by the West Yorkshire Combined Authority (WYCA) – which consists of Leeds City Council, Wakefield MDC, Bradford City MDC, Calerdale MBC, and Kirklees – but also includes the North Yorkshire districts of Craven DC, Harrogate BC and Selby BC.
And finally, the indifferent devolution news.
The Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has published the findings of its investigation into the first wave of City Deals between the Government and local enterprise partnerships.
PAC concluded the deals show some sign of early success, but are not necessarily the most appropriate model for wider devolution.
The committee expressed concern that the Government has not made clear who is accountable for public funds that have been devolved through City Deals and recommends that DCLG should work with local areas to ensure there are
effective and well-resourced local scrutiny arrangements and accountability systems to make certain that funding is well spent so the Department and local taxpayers have a clear understanding about how this money is spent.
The PAC report continues:
The Department’s lack of monitoring and evaluation in the deals makes it difficult to assess their overall effectiveness.
The Department lacks certainty over whether there is enough capacity locally to manage devolved funding effectively and sustainably. The Government has committed £2.3 billion to the first wave of City Deals. The Department must develop a more evidence-based approach to assessing whether local areas have sufficient and sustainable resources to deliver the City Deals in the wider context of Government funding restrictions.
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