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Combined Authorities: Benefits and Challenges

Joining up public service provision across regional boundaries and boosting spending power through more collaboration in procurement are some of the key policy priorities for government organisations across the UK.

The introduction of Combined Authorities (CA) in England is perhaps the most significant step forward in bringing the structure of the public sector in line with the aspirations and imperatives of local government.

Structure and purpose
Legislation to facilitate the creation of CAs was passed in 2009, with the first formed for Greater Manchester in 2011. Two or more local authorities can cooperate to create a CA; they are legal entities established by central government but owned and managed by the participating bodies.

They were conceived in part as a response to calls for devolution in England following the creation of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, with the primary aim of assisting in the integration and improvement of public services and driving regional economic growth.

Ten have been created thus far, eight of which are led by metro mayors. These have bespoke devolution agreements with central government, which transfer certain powers and funding from Westminster.

Benefits and challenges
CAs are designed to complement local authorities rather than supplant them: they have overlapping but distinct remits, with CAs concentrating on strategic projects that augment council activities.

With a general shift towards collaborative purchasing in the public sector, the CA model has helped to increase the spending power and the strategic scope of participating councils. Areas such as healthcare, transport, education are key priorities, but ICT in particular has been focused on heavily as part of the wider pan-government digital transformation agenda.

The creation of new governmental structures is no easy task and recruiting the right people – without draining talent from the participating bodies – has been a challenge common to all councils that have formed CAs.

Successful establishment is difficult enough, but much like the experience of devolution in Scotland and Wales, the initial setup is only the start of a long-term process of gradual expansion in capability and remits.

Agreeing the details of devolution deals is intensive and complex for those led by mayors, not least due to the political dynamics within the participating local authorities. Geographically adjacent councils can have quite different priorities and ideologies that serve to impede moves towards collective action.

The future
It’s not inconceivable that the CA model will ultimately be implemented across all of England’s regions. If so, it would essentially create an entirely new tier of government. Such a development would necessitate a re-appraisal of the overall structure of government in general – could CAs eventually be more akin to the current devolved national administrations in terms of resources and remit?

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