Devolution Bill: counties could benefit from extra powers

1 Jun 15

Counties that form combined authorities could be able to access a range of additional powers from Whitehall, the government’s Devolution Bill has indicated, but only if they appoint directly elected mayors.

The legislation, which was published on Friday, confirmed Chancellor George Osborne’s plans to devolve powers to combined authorities around cities that appoint mayors, similar to the agreement already reached with Manchester. Powers being proposed for the city through a devolution deal include greater control over transport, housing, planning and policing and localisation of NHS spending, which Osborne indicated should be a template for other areas.

However, the legislation also revealed that counties and districts that form into combined authorities could be able to qualify for the same suit of powers, if they too move to a mayoral model.

Setting out the proposals, Communities Secretary Greg Clark said mayors were needed for to ensure local leadership and scrutiny of decision-making when powers are devolved.

‘We’re determined to end the hoarding of power in Whitehall and rebalance our economy – unlocking local flair so our cities, towns and counties can reach their full potential and become their own economic powerhouses up and down the country,’ he said.

‘This Bill will deliver the historic Greater Manchester devolution agreement and set the wheels in motion for other areas to follow.’

The legislation has also set out plans for mayoral combined authorities to be funded by a council tax precept.

It proposed an amendment to the Local Government Finance Act 1992 to allow for the new levy, which stated: ‘Where the precepting authority is a mayoral combined authority, a precept may be issued under this section only in relation to expenditure incurred by the mayor for the authority’s area in, or in connection with, the exercise of mayoral functions’.

The Bill will also extend the general power of competence, which was extended to local authorities in February 2012 as part of the Localism Act passed by the coalition government, to combined authorities.

Welcoming the Bill, James Wharton, the Northern Powerhouse minister in the Department for Communities and Local Government, said it provided a huge opportunity for the North of England to attract investment and create jobs.
‘Supporting businesses and giving hard-working people the skills they need to succeed is at the heart of our long-term economic plan and we are determined to ensure more businesses can thrive across our region,’ he added.

Responding to the publication of the legislation, LGA chair David Sparks said the LGA supported devolution of power to all local communities and was ready to work with the government to meet this aspiration.

‘However, we firmly believe that people should be free to choose the appropriate model of governance for their community,’ he added.

‘Historically a top-down approach has not worked and several cities have already rejected elected mayors, during referendums that let people decide. We would urge the government to reconsider its position so local and central government can work together to meet our shared ambitions for the people we are here to serve.’

Responding to the announcement, County Councils Network chair David Hodge said it was encouraging news.

He added: ‘CCN has tirelessly made the case for devolution to be extended to all councils and areas and it looks like ministers have been listening. By working together we can improve public services and public finances while helping the whole country prosper.’

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