Town Hall reforms: Supersized councils are now the new normal

But as local authorities form regional power blocs, some fear for small democracy
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Indy Politics

England's councils are clubbing together to create a new breed of "super councils" in one of the biggest shake-ups in local democracy for a generation.

Neighbouring councils are forming alliances to take joint decisions on everything from housing and regeneration to public transport, creating "combined authorities". The trend marks a step towards recreating the civic seats of power not seen since the late 19th century.

Manchester was the first area to test the idea, with 10 councils joining to create the Greater Manchester Combined Authority in 2011. It proved such a success that the Chancellor, George Osborne, agreed this month to devolve more powers to the city and award it an elected mayor to control its £1bn budget.

Now other councils are rushing to follow suit. Liverpool, Sheffield, Leeds and Newcastle have all set up their own super councils with surrounding authorities, while local authorities in the Midlands, Nottinghamshire and Teesside are negotiating their own agreements. The change is not confined to urban areas: councils in rural Derbyshire also have plans to band together.

According to local government expert Professor Tony Travers, the shift in how councils co-operate is "the real thing". "I'm sure it's a sea change," he said.

However Professor Travers warned some councils could be making plans to join up because they believe it is a reliable way to get funding after years of cuts to local government coffers. "Once councils work out that this is the only way to get any assets, once they realise that unless you play the Government's game you don't get anything then, lo and behold, people play the Government's game," he said.

Simon Parker, director of the New Local Government Network, agreed there was an element of "me too-ism" about the latest efforts to merge.

"They're springing up like mushrooms, and not just in urban areas. We've now got counties and districts teaming to create them. What Greater Manchester has done is take this on early and it has shown it can deliver, but it's harder [to do] in other parts of the country," he said. "It's a small step in a much bigger journey but it's the first step we've taken in the right direction for generations in this country."

Professor Travers said he was confident that most of the new structures "probably will work" where they are based on urban economic geography but warned that clubbing together would not suit every council. "If everybody is expecting to do this, what will come from it? There is a problem: how does the rest of England fit into this model if this is the only show in town?" he said.

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The Chancellor, George Osborne, is offering more power to councils who combine on common goals (Getty)

Ben Lucas, of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerces, said councils were "moving very fast" as a result of widespread dissatisfaction with politics. "What I think is interesting about it is that it's way of achieving a lot of what people have wanted to see for a long time, which is local economic decision-making, but [through combined authorities] we can do it without having to do a big reorganisation of local government."

Mr Lucas said combined authorities had the benefit of making local decisions about important services such as public transport, broadband connections and skills and training to match the area's job market.

Critics worry these new super states could become undemocratic quangos, concentrating power in the hands of small groups of individuals rather than passing it down to local people. Efforts to create a combined authority in the Black Country, bringing together Dudley, Sandwell, Wolverhampton, Walsall and Birmingham, are opposed by local Ukip MEPs who say the move to devolve power could, paradoxically, damage local democracy.

In Manchester, there are those who claim that the new combined authority has created a "mafia" of 10 council leaders who have known one another and worked together for decades. The Rochdale MP Simon Danczuk said powerful individuals could exert a lot of control in the group. "There is an over-dominance of the centre," he said. "I think, given a lot of the regeneration that went on in the sub-regions of Greater Manchester, that a disproportionate amount of money went to Manchester. That is because some of these people have dominated."

Anthony Zacharzewski, founder of the participatory democracy pressure group Democratic Society, said: "I do think that this is an important issue. We have got the trade-off between efficiency and democratic governance. People have a tendency at the moment to go for efficiency."

Professor Travers said: "The question is how we create accountability for a city region that makes sense to the public. In the glory days of the 19th century, every city had a self-functioning political class. This has elements of trying to resurrect this but it needs to be held to account."

One answer to the question of accountability may be to introduce more of Mr Osborne's directly elected "metro mayors" to oversee each combined authority. Alternatively, MPs may be asked to take on more local responsibilities. But MPs' relationships with their local authority can be complicated. "The more that new arrangements are set up over which they feel they have no control, the more MPs are likely to feel they want to have a role in it," said Professor Travers.

How can we make 'super councils' more democratic?

A core concern for critics of the spread of 'super councils' is that groups of council leaders are not held accountable for their influential decisions on behalf of a whole region. There are three ways the problem could be overcome:

Metro mayors

Manchester already has one and other cities could find George Osborne follows suit and awards them a powerful elected figurehead who can oversee a combined authority. They can be voted out if citizens don't like what they're doing, but the leaders of the councils that make up a combined authority could also still wield enough power to overturn mayoral decisions.

MPs given more powers

As devolution to combined authorities gives more power and funding to local areas, MPs may be allowed to play a broader role in local politics. Simon Danczuk is one MP in favour of changing the job description for Westminster politicians.

Local scrutiny committees

Just like Parliament's select committees, local scrutiny committees could be created to check that decisions are being made fairly and properly. However, the committee would be appointed by local councils so citizens could still feel pushed out of the process.

Onward march of the authorities

Already formed:

Greater Manchester Combined Authority

Includes Bolton, Oldham, Manchester, Rochdale, Salford, Stockport, Tameside, Trafford and Wigan.

Established 2011.

Fact First to be granted a directly elected "metro mayor".

Sheffield City Region Combined Authority

Includes Barnsley, Doncaster, Rotherham and Sheffield.

Established 2014.

Fact Expected to spend £600m on infrastructure projects for the region.

North East Combined Authority

Includes Durham, Gateshead, Newcastle, North Tyneside, Northumberland, South Tyneside and Sunderland.

Established 2014.

Fact Conceals major tensions between arch rivals Sunderland and Newcastle.

Liverpool City Region Combined Authority

Includes Halton, Knowsley, Liverpool, Sefton, St Helens and Wirral.

Established 2014.

Fact Liverpool mayor Joe Anderson wants the city to receive greater financial powers and a "metro mayor".

West Yorkshire Combined Authority

Includes Bradford, Calderdale, Kirklees, Leeds and Wakefield.

Established 2014.

Fact York voted against joining but still sits in on some meetings.

Under discussion

South Hampshire Portsmouth and Southampton have agreed to explore the creation of a local super council.

Teesside Middlesbrough, Hartlepool, Redcar and Cleveland, Stockton and Darlington are in partnership talks.

West Midlands The name is a sticking point in plans to join Birmingham, Walsall, Sandwell, Wolverhampton and Dudley councils. Some are calling for a Black Country Combined Authority.

Derbyshire Derbyshire county council, Derby city council and the eight district councils have begun talks – the first non-metropolitan group to do so.

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