…and MPs are not happy. Neither are others with proposals for regional committees of MPs to scrutinise combined authorities
Scrutiny and accountability between elections has always been a problem for combined authorities and metro mayors. In late October 2022 (just over four months ago,) MPs on the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee concluded that the governance of England is a mess and needed an overhaul.
The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities responded:
“The Government does not agree that would be proportionate or desirable to take steps towards to a cross-party parliamentary commission on the governance of England. This is because we believe the right course now is to focus on levelling up opportunity and prosperity across the country, pursuing reforms that are locally led and centred on places and local communities. We want to be led by the ambition of local areas, which is why we will continue to deliver ‘trailblazer’ devolution deals that break new ground on the autonomy given to local areas.”Government’s Response to Governing England by Commons PACAC
Which reflects the response the same department (effectively my old one – DCLG) gave to the Commons Levelling Up Select Committee on its investigation into the sustainability of local council finances. That committee concluded local government finances were unsustainable.
“The government has no plans to replace or fundamentally reform council tax. A revaluation would be expensive to undertake and could result in increases to bills for many households. The creation of higher council tax bands, which in itself would require a revaluation, may penalise people on fixed incomes, including pensioners, who could face a substantial tax rise without having the income to pay the higher bill.”Recommendation 3 – Government’s Response to Commons LUHC
“Did anything come of the online sales tax proposals?”
You can read the full response to the consultation here, published in early February 2023. All that ministers committed to was a revaluation of business rates that reduced shop-front rates and increased warehouse rates. But the problem remains that all the funding goes into a big pot and redistributed, which provides not nearly enough support for those areas that need it, while preventing places like Cambridge from investing in much-needed public infrastructure (Eg transport) without having to go cap-in-hand to ministers all the time.
“Total business rates paid by the retail sector are estimated to fall by 20% but will rise 27% for large distribution warehouses. This redistribution of the rates burden is in part a reflection of growth in online sales and longer-term changes in the retail sector since the previous valuation date in 2015.”Online Sales Tax consultation – the results
“So…nothing is going to come of it in the short-medium term?“
Not before a general election – one that senior Conservatives are aiming to frame as “a culture war”
“Is that the best they’ve got?”
“What about Combined Authorities?”
No investment zones in the East of England
Furthermore, the proposals for increasing scrutiny fall short of the call by Labour for ‘local public accounts committees’
The Chancellor said the following on combined authorities:
“The government will consult on transferring responsibilities for local economic development currently delivered by Local Enterprise Partnerships to support local economic development to local authorities from April 2024.”
“I will also boost Mayors’ financial autonomy by agreeing multi-year single settlements for the West Midlands and the Greater Combined Manchester Authority at the next spending review, something I intend to roll out for all Mayoral areas over time.“Transcript of Budget Speech 15 March 2023
“Will The Chancellor be around to roll this out over time?”
Don’t count yer chickens – or MPs’ seats until the general election has happened. The problem remains however, that the revenue-raising powers remain firmly with The Treasury.
…as Annabel Smith from the Centre for Progressive Policy states above.
For me, the general principle should be that a tier of government that has significant revenue raising powers should have a separation of powers between legislature and executive. In the USA they have that, in the UK we do not. That’s not to say the US system is better. Both have their problems as we have seen in recent years. In England (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland this is a devolved issue – again reflecting the broken system for governing England) London has experimented with a London Assembly. Yet that assembly has very few meaningful revenue-raising powers.
Above – by Stephen K Bush, this relates to the concept of having regional select committees to scrutinise metro mayors. As if MPs are not busy enough as it is. Well, those who have highly-demanding constituencies such as Cambridge. This comes back to my point about having properly paid councillors scrutinising substantive issues, representing public institutions with substantive revenue raising powers independent of The Treasury in London.
One of the impacts of having ‘responsibility without power’ is that councillors get it in the neck for things they have little power or control over.
Sadly that abuse was one of the reasons Cllr Hilary Cox Condron has resigned her Arbury seat for Cambridgeshire Labour – which will now have a by-election on the same day as the Cambridge City Council elections on 04 May 2023. Yet if you look at the cross-party tributes for her two years as the Deputy Chair of Communities and Social Mobility Committee for the County Council, you can see what a huge impact she had in a short space of time.
Above – by Rob Morris of Chatteris posted by Save Wenny Meadow – when was the last time you saw a local councillor holding the attention of a group of children like this, completely oblivious to the photographer? (Credit to Rob as both positioning and photographing without distracting children is not something that comes by accident!)
“So where does all of this leave us?”
Having to work out some grass-roots-route as Phil Rodgers wrote in his column.
…which brings us back to where you draw the boundaries. Take your pick:
Below: Do we go for the Cambridge + South Cambridgeshire? (i.e. below-left but without the old Newmarket Rural District shaded in yellow). Do we go with the boundaries of the old Cambridge County? (Below Right) (Noting this version was the result of the first extension of Cambridge Borough’s municipal boundaries just before the First World War)
Above: …Or do we go for something from the 1960s such as Redcliffe Maud’s recommendation in 1969 (above-left) based on our economic sub-region (from Lichfield, 1966, above-right), incorporating the surrounding market towns? (Which would need ministerial approval that in the short to medium term is not forthcoming).
Food for thought?
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