Combined Authorities and the 21st Century Councillor

Combined authority

Interviews for the 21st Century Councillor report were taking place during the move to combined authorities on a regional base and this was proving challenging for many councillors. Different local authorities in our research were at different stages on the journey to combined authorities, with some still at the pre-deal stage, and others having transitional arrangements in place.

Whilst there was enthusiasm for the idea of powers being devolved from central government, many of the councillors we spoke to, including those in leadership positions, were struggling with the complexity of the new arrangements and the lack of democratic mandate. Key issues were:

  • A loss of power from individual councils to the combined authority:

‘This needs to suck powers out of London and Westminster and not suck powers up from the districts.’

  • Tensions between different areas of the combined authority, in relation to identity and resources:

‘The requirements of [my town]…are so far removed from the other areas within the…city region that it’s nonsense.’

‘There’s definitely some nervousness around, you know, how we still retain our identity I suppose and that’s what really important for members, you know, that we don’t just all merge into one, sort of, blob.’  

  •  A lack of public awareness of combined authorities. One interviewee reflected on the lack of engagement of the public, but also of some councillors:

And I’ve had members of the public saying to me “I don’t even know what devolution is. What is it?” you know, it does feel very much like a bit of an entity on its own and yeah, I would say that not all of my colleagues have the passion and the kind of wanting to understand what it is and means and that worries me ‘cause it’s a huge thing.’

  • Concerns about leadership, particularly on an elected mayor model:

‘I’d welcome devolution, I welcome our ability to actually manage our cities. The irony is we’re all forced to have an elected mayor even though people didn’t want one and so that’s not devolution is it?’

Whilst there was scepticism about adding in an additional layer of (mayoral) leadership, many councillors also had concerns about the capacity of existing leaders to make the combined authority approach work:

If I was an executive member having to make these decisions I would be very concerned about time restrictions and sheer volume of how it’s happening really. I don’t think there’s enough scrutiny about devolution.’

Some councillors expressed concern that the combined authority agenda had been led by officers, with only marginal involvement of most members except the leaders:

Really big, strategic issues, very complex, rattling along at a huge pace and basically it’s expert officer professional led. There’s no political input in to that, because we’re not geared up process-wise how to deal with it.’

One councillor reflected on the sense of being in flux: ‘It’s difficult at the moment to know what the finished article might look like…We’re on a…devolution journey here.’


Full findings from the 21st Century Councillor report are available here.

Catherine Needham and Catherine Mangan are based at the University of Birmingham. They tweet as @DrCNeedham and @mangancatherine  using the hashtag #21cPS


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