Teething troubles for Combined Authorities must not be mistaken for failure

By Mike Emmerich, Director

Britain loves nothing more than to build up people and institutions in public life and then to participate in the spectacle of their destruction.

Not even three months since the election of a crop of new metro mayors for Combined Authorities across England, we’re already seeing the process start. The National Audit Office (NAO) report in early July said little more than that it is early days for Combined Authorities and much remains to be done to make a success of them. Yet some of the reporting of their findings seemed gleefully to anticipate their failure.

Meanwhile in the real world, new Combined Authorities and their metro mayors have been creating new ways of running cities amidst the toughest fiscal conditions and policy stress in living memory. Among the many challenges to which this has given rise is the adjustment by powerful city and other councils - which have for centuries been the focal point for civic, political and business leadership - to the reality of new and potentially powerful metro mayors.

That this should lead to tensions should come as a surprise to no-one in public life. You might have expected this in areas where Labour-dominated city authorities have been spliced together with suburban areas that propelled Tory candidates to victory, as in the West Midlands and Teesside. But it is in the power relationships between city halls that the new modus vivendi is being forged and tested. It is generating heat: in private in Manchester and Birmingham and rather more publicly in Liverpool.

Steve Rotheram’s mayoralty sits uneasily alongside that of Liverpool’s city mayor Joe Anderson, an institution that has dragged Liverpool from near-ruin to real success through exemplary regeneration. As this journal has reported, serial leakers have enabled the press to dine out on some of the steps in the painful process of making the new reality work.

At this point, cue extensive tutting and eye-rolling from some that this proves what they knew all along: ‘provincial’ politicians just aren’t up to the task of running their own cities. Why can’t they just replicate the successful model of the Greater London Authority (GLA), they ask?

Of course, you could write a whole book about the patronising attitudes and suffocating centralising tendencies that have led us to the point where even modest loosening of Whitehall’s grip is seen as a dangerously radical experiment in localism (and in fact, I did).

But parking that for a second, there are good reasons why we shouldn’t expect the new Combined Authorities to function like the capital.

For a start, the structure is completely different. In London, Sadiq Khan and the GLA sit as a quasi-federal government, with its own bureaucracy and a £16bn-a-year budget.

The Combined Authorities, in contrast, are sleeker beasts. In part this was to neuter accusations that they represented an extra layer of red tape, so the new mayors have minimal staff, modest budgets and, without a GLA-style assembly, they must lead cabinets of council leaders with city-region responsibilities but only local accountability.

But in part the model was to overcome a design flaw in London: that there is no functioning mechanism by which the GLA and borough councils can work together on policy. The London model has been successful but is far from perfect. Housing is a case in point: while Sadiq Khan wants 90,000 affordable homes built by 2021, in 2015 there were just 5,790 such homes completed and planning consent remains reserved to the boroughs. Hopefully the new Mayoral Combined authorities can do better: bringing strategic and local together creating both the growth and social inclusion that has eluded the capital.

Those who would criticise that this has not been an elegant process so far should remember: it's very, very early days. The new mayoralties need time and support to bed in. I hope in its future report on them the NAO will compare the Government largesse in preparing for the creation of  the GLA, or the millions spent on rolling out many central Government programmes with the Pickles-era penny-pinching that has deprived the new metros of any financial support for managing the transition.

Now, the Bloomberg Foundation has stepped in. The metro Mayors are currently at Harvard University learning from mayors around the world. Will we mock that or see it as a much-needed downpayment on the institution-building our city governance needs if it is to succeed? Readers of this magazine know better than most: building strong institutions is a great deal harder than knocking them.

First published in Local Government Chronicle