Progress on devolution in England Contents

7Scrutiny in combined authorities

141.In December 2017 our predecessor committee recommended that there needed to be adequate resourcing of the scrutiny of metro mayors.470 This section looks at the different ways in which scrutiny of devolved areas can be enhanced.

The nature of scrutiny in devolved areas

142.We were told that combined authorities are strategic and long-term in their approach. They do not “by and large, have that direct service delivery responsibility. It means that scrutiny needs to look quite different too.”471 The Centre for Public Scrutiny identified five types of scrutiny within combined authorities: scrutiny of the Mayor chiefly by council leaders, scrutiny of the Mayor by other local partners, scrutiny by the public and press, scrutiny by the formal scrutiny bodies of the combined authorities, and scrutiny carried out by the individual constituent local authorities. The Centre also commented that “scrutiny in combined authorities is of a different and distinct nature to scrutiny in local government”, and therefore there needed to be greater clarity from combined authority on the place of scrutiny in their work. It worried that presently scrutiny was neglected “mainly because its role and impact are both indistinct.”472

143.MHCLG told us that combined authorities were subject to “independent external audit, the Freedom of Information Act and the Local Government transparency code.” They have open meetings and an overview and scrutiny framework, along with being obliged to have one overview and scrutiny committee, to examine decisions planned by the executive, and an audit committee.473 Mayors are, of course, also scrutinised by and accountable to voters.474

144.We heard criticism of existing monitoring and evaluation of devolution authorities. The LGA criticised devolved areas having to fulfil certain delivery targets set by central government, arguing genuine devolution would rely on democratic accountability instead.475 Ed Hammond from the Centre for Public Scrutiny noted that greater devolution more widely spread will make it harder for central government to keep track of those local activities, in turning necessitating the strengthening of local systems of scrutiny.476

What are the right institutions for scrutiny?

145.There are broadly speaking two institutional models of scrutiny for directly elected mayors in English devolution. The first is the council in combined authorities that includes council leaders and the metro mayor. The combined authorities also have committees, formed of local councillors from the constituent councils, for areas such overview and scrutiny and audit and governance. The second is the model in London of a separately elected assembly that holds the Mayor accountable. We sought to examine the relative merits of these two approaches.

146.The London Assembly argued in evidence to us that there are four ways that its scrutiny system is preferable to that of the combined authorities. First, because elections are by proportional representation and therefore the Assembly is not dominated by one party, it is more effective in challenging the mayor. Secondly, the combined authority approach risked council leaders chiefly focusing on the impact on their local area and meant “those scrutinising the Mayors have dual roles and, potentially, confused democratic mandates.” By contrast the London Assembly members represented either large constituencies or city-wide list members and therefore could take a more strategic, London-wide perspective. Thirdly, having its own budget, staff and legal identity meant the Assembly “can set its own priorities and carry out its functions with minimal interference from the executive.” Fourthly, it emphasised the benefit of Mayoral Question Time, which takes place ten times a year and is preceded by a written report from the Mayor, for publicly holding the Mayor to account.477

147.Various arguments were advanced in favour of an assembly-style model for combined authorities. It would have “a direct link to voters”, have “legitimacy derived from direct election”, would enjoy a “higher public profile”, and provide visible scrutiny.478 Smaller political parties would be represented.479 It would push governance and accountability back down to local level.480 The role of the Assembly was also singled out contributing to the better record of London’s devolved institutions, compared to other combined authorities, in land development and transport.481 In imitation of the eleven (out of 25 in total) London Assembly members representing the whole of the authority, Dr John Stanton from the University of London suggested there should be “four or five region-wide representatives on the combined authority with primarily a scrutiny function” who would be directly elected and sit on the combined authority council.482

148.Stanton did suggest there were two challenges with applying the Assembly model elsewhere. First, an assembly with a shared political allegiance with the mayor might provide less effective scrutiny. Secondly, it is unclear “whether combined authorities are capable of holding mayors to account in the same way [as in London].”483 Lord Kerslake opposed introducing an assembly model, arguing that combined authorities were still in their early days, and it would be better “to let different models develop in each of those places and then test how they are working”.484 This view was echoed by the Institute for Public Policy Research North, who commented that “All local areas should be given the ability to adopt governance models that are not imposed from the top, but are instead tailored around their specific needs, ambitions and circumstances.”485

149.There were also calls to strengthen the scrutiny system in London. These included a “borough leaders’ senate” sitting alongside the Assembly, or matching Assembly constituency boundaries to that of local authorities or their wards.486 The London Assembly instead advocated extending its powers of scrutiny beyond the statutory functions of the Mayor, to areas such as London’s health trust, ambulance services and utilities. It also commented on how the Assembly does not have the ability to call-in decisions by the Mayor, or receive a forward plan from the Mayor.487 This is despite our predecessor committee’s recommendation in 2013 and 2016 that the Mayor be required to publish a forward plan, and that the Assembly be given power to call-in mayoral decisions and to have a potential veto over the Police and Crime Plan and deputy mayoral appointments.488

150.The existing scrutiny arrangements for combined authorities were defended by Jamie Driscoll, Metro Mayor, North of Tyne:

Our colleague Steve Rotheram says frequently, “We are the most scrutinised politicians anywhere”. There are seven people in my cabinet, including me. There are 38 members of various scrutiny bodies and 41 people on various panels that we run. We are really quite heavily outnumbered. That is in addition to scrutiny officers, assurance frameworks, investment panels, technical officers groups and, inevitably, auditing. The short answer would be that it works very well. Perhaps to quote [T.S.] Eliot, people spend their times dreaming of systems so perfect that nobody has to be good. Scrutiny only works if people engage with it anyway.489

The sufficiency of existing scrutiny arrangements was also espoused by James Palmer then Metro Mayor, Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, although he did opine that the scrutiny committee “is still seen by many as a way of attacking politically, rather than questioning how better practice could be delivered.”490

151.Abdool Kara from the NAO argued that the weakness in the scrutiny of mayors was not of their exercise of formal powers, but of their softer convening powers.491 Professor Francesca Gains, University of Manchester, did state that, in a Greater Manchester context, scrutiny had improved since 2016, with committees created reflecting the different policy work pursued by the authority.492 Nevertheless she accepted that “scrutiny is a weaker part of the infrastructure”. Consequently, she proposed having scrutineers drawn from the individual authorities who could report back to non-executive councillors in those authorities. There are roughly 600 councillors whose “talent and creativity” could be harnessed.493 James Palmer noted the committees on housing and skills in his combined authority had members who were councillors but not council leaders and “That creates a much better debate and more transparency”.494 Ed Hammond from the Centre for Public Scrutiny thought directly elected scrutiny committees for combined authorities would create an alternative career path for local politicians akin to being a select committee chair in Parliament.495 This could address the wider problem, detailed by Professor Colin Copus from De Montfort University, of local councillors being subjected to much more vigorous party whipping than MPs, which in turn has made scrutiny a less attractive career option than serving in the executive.496 He did not think it was necessary to have directly elected scrutiny committees to oversee local councils. 497

Local public accounts committees

152.A specific way of further enhancing scrutiny was establishing local public accounts committees. This idea has been proposed the Centre for Public Scrutiny,498 and supported by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on devolution.499 Ed Hammond from the Centre for Public Scrutiny argued such committees would look at value for money in both local government and other public sector organisations. They could be directly-elected, and would be “place-based and would not be focused on holding the combined authority or local authorities to account”, but rather “system issues and value for money.”500 Supporters of the proposal argued it could help establish parity of esteem between local and central government;501 and could enhance public awareness and scrutiny.502 It was suggested the committees could be piloted in mayoral areas.503 However coolness about the idea was expressed by combined authority and local authority representatives. James Palmer said he was not opposed to it; but was not sure it would be necessary given existing audit and governance committees and external audit. Jamie Driscoll added that whereas such an approach might be appropriate in London, given the lack of “true executive power” of metro mayors it was unclear what the committee would be looking at.504 The LGA’s Chair Cllr James Jamieson was also cautious, noting the existing scrutiny mechanisms and being wary of additional bureaucracy, although he recognised that there could be “some tidying up.”505

West Yorkshire’s approach

153.During our inquiry the Government announced the West Yorkshire devolution deal. One distinct aspect of the combined authority, inherited from its original structure in 2014,506 was the inclusion of three additional members, with voting rights, alongside council leaders and the elected mayor. These are chosen by the constituent councils to reflect the political balance of participating local authorities.507 We were interested in whether this aspect was a model for achieving better scrutiny. Lord Kerslake singled out West Yorkshire for bringing opposition members on to the combined authority “which would not naturally have happened if it were just the leaders from the local councils. That is a really interesting approach to sharpening scrutiny.”508 Conversely Jamie Driscoll commented that the deal seemed “wonderfully ambitious but there are an awful lot of committees and an awful lot of people involved.” He therefore wondered whether there would be sufficient engagement and scrutiny.509

Building a culture of scrutiny

154.Ed Hammond at the Centre for Public Scrutiny underlined the importance that “there is a danger in focusing exclusively on the structures rather than thinking about people’s behaviours, culture and that kind of thing.”510 We asked the metro mayors how they were embedding scrutiny in their combined authorities. James Palmer cited the committee system as opening up decision-making. Jamie Driscoll commented “As with all scrutiny, it works well if the relationships work well.” This included appearing before the scrutiny committee, having different boards, a regular mayor’s question time and a weekly video outlining his activities.511 Other evidence highlighted measures to enhance public engagement such as the Liverpool City Regions Listens project in August to October 2019 in Liverpool.512 It was also emphasised that polling, focus groups, citizens assemblies were particularly important for engaging women and other underrepresented groups.513

155.There is no consensus on the optimum structure for scrutiny in a devolved authority, including as to whether the London Assembly is superior to the existing combined authority structures. The new audit arrangements being introduced by the Government should consider the best way to conduct scrutiny and ensure greater transparency of the budgets of combined authorities. Scrutiny must be on a cross-party basis and scrutiny bodies should reflect this. We reiterate our predecessor committee’s recommendation in 2017 that the Government ensure there is adequate funding of the scrutiny of the metro mayors. We reiterate our predecessor committees’ recommendations in 2013 and 2016 that the London Assembly should receive a forward plan from the Mayor of London, receive call-in powers, and be able to reject the Mayor’s Police and Crime Plan and appointments for deputy mayors. The Government should also examine the case for permitting the London Assembly to scrutinise other aspects of London governance beyond those areas overseen by the mayoral administration.

Reform of the quorum rules

156.The proportion of members required to attend overview and scrutiny meetings (the quorum) for combined authorities is two-thirds of all members. This is more stringent than the one-third required for local authorities.514 Sheffield City Region Combined Authority argued “a lot of time and effort” was spent ensuring meetings in combined authorities is quorate. It argued the rules should be reviewed.515 The Centre for Public Scrutiny told us “In some CAs [combined authorities], inquoracy is a regular feature of meetings.”516 It noted a Government consultation of 2016–19 on permitting remote attendance of committees, which endorsed permitting remote meetings to take place for local authority joint meetings and combined authorities but only from sites suitable for holding a meeting with public access (e.g. a town hall).517

157.Scrutiny committees for combined authorities has been hindered by strict quorum rules. The Government should consider whether the quorum for combined authorities could be made one-half of the membership rather than the present two-thirds.

Complaints about local and combined authorities

158.The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman (LGSCO) voiced various concerns about the procedures for handling complaints in local and combined authorities. Given that it upheld 67% of complaints against local councils in 2020–21 it is important the public have proper means of redress.518 Combined authorities “have made mixed progress towards putting in place a complaints system that we would judge to meet the needs and rights of their service users.” The LGSCO also lamented its lack of power to investigate complaints against parish and town councils who take on responsibilities formerly held by district councils when local government structures are reorganised into unitary authorities. It also wanted its writ extended to passenger transport authorities, fire and rescue authorities, and police and crime commissioners when they are integrated into combined authorities. For example, Merseytravel, now an executive body of the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority, is beyond the LGSCO’s oversight. In contrast the Transport for Greater Manchester Committee, a branch of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, is under the LGSCO’s jurisdiction. Therefore, the LGSCO wanted confirmation that “all English local government administrative functions and services should fall clearly and unambiguously within our jurisdiction.”519

159.The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman expressed concerns about its oversight of combined authorities, pointing to uncertainties over its jurisdiction and a loss of oversight when unitarisation occurred. We agree that proper complaints procedures should be in place in all combined authorities. The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman’s jurisdiction should also apply to services such as passenger transport authorities which are integrated into combined authorities unless there are equivalent complaint procedures already in place. The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman should also be given jurisdiction over those powers which were formerly exercised by district councils which have been passed by unitary authorities to parish, town and community councils.

The data for scrutiny

160.A further measure to improve scrutiny is to enhance the quality of data relating to devolved areas. Gaps were identified in the provision of outcome data about equalities groups,520 and in economic data at a city region level, such as GDP, inflation,521 the balance of trade, investment and business growth.522 The lack of data applies at a local authority level,523 at a combined authority level (particularly when it is non-mayoral),524 and at regional and city levels.525 Furthermore, data—such as gross value added data for local areas—often takes too long to become available to influence policymaking,526 and there is a lack of resources available to undertake thorough counter-factual evaluation of policies.527 Government annual reports on devolution were also criticised, because

the financial information is very difficult to assess as it does not present year on year allocations or overall funding allocations over time by combined authority. The information provided in the report will not assist the requirement for scrutiny of devolved funding at either central government or combined authority level.528

161.There is a need for more data about combined authority and other sub-national areas. The Government, the Office for National Statistics, and the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy should develop datasets to enable effective evaluation of combined authorities and other sub-national areas. The Government should also ensure there are resources to enable areas with devolution deals to undertake more thorough evaluation of their own work.

470 Communities and Local Government Committee, First Report of Session 2017–19, Effectiveness of local authority overview and scrutiny committees, HC 369, para 104

471 Q65 (Ed Hammond, Centre for Public Scrutiny), (Andrew Walker, Local Government Information Unit). See also Local Government Association (PDE0011)

472 Centre for Public Scrutiny (PDE0002)

473 Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (PDE0033). See also Q73 (Abdool Kara, National Audit Office)

474 Q73 (Andrew Walker, Local Government Information Unit)

475 Local Government Association (POD0014). See also UK2070 Commission (POD0012)

476 Q58 (Ed Hammond, Centre for Public Scrutiny)

477 London Assembly (PED0021)

478 De Montfort University (PDE0003)

479 Q43 (Colin Copus, De Montfort University). See also Q71 (Ed Hammond, Centre for Public Scrutiny)

480 Q60 (Ed Hammond, Centre for Public Scrutiny)

481 CPRE (PDE0004)

482 Qq38–39 (John Stanton, University of London)

483 Q40 (John Stanton, University of London)

484 Q235 (Lord Kerslake, UK2070 Commission)

485 IPPR North (PDE0023)

486 Q41 (John Stanton, University of London)

487 London Assembly (PED0021)

488 Communities and Local Government Committee, Fourth Report of Session 2013–14, Post-legislativescrutiny of the Greater London Authority Act 2007 and the London Assembly, HC 213, para 37; Communities and Local Government Committee, First Report of Session 2015–16, Devolution: the next five years and beyond, HC 369, para 101

489 Q161 (Jamie Driscoll, Metro Mayor, North of Tyne Combined Authority)

490 Q161 (James Palmer, Metro Mayor, Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority)

491 Q73 (Abdool Kara, National Audit Office)

492 Q38 (Francesca Gains, University of Manchester)

493 Q16, Qq41–42 (Francesca Gains, University of Manchester)

494 Q162 (James Palmer, Metro Mayor, Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority)

495 Q60 (Ed Hammond, Centre for Public Scrutiny)

496 Q38, Q40, Q44 (Colin Copus, De Montfort University)

497 Q45 (Colin Copus, De Montfort university)

499 The Devolution All-Party Parliamentary Group, Levelling-up Devo: The role of national government in making a success of devolution in England, March 2021, p 9

500 Q60, Q69 (Ed Hammond, Centre for Public Scrutiny)

501 UK2070 Commission (POD0012), Q239 (Lord Kerslake, UK2070 Commission)

502 Q239 (Greg Clark MP)

503 UK2070 Commission (POD0012)

504 Q163 (James Palmer, Metro Mayor, Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority), (Jamie Driscoll, Metro Mayor, North of Tyne Combined Authority)

505 Q239 (James Jamieson, Local Government Association)

506 West Yorkshire Combined Authority Order 2014 (SI 2014/864) Schedule 1

507 HM Treasury, Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, City of Bradford Metropolitan District Council, Calderdale Council, Kirklees Council, Leeds City Council, Wakefield Council, West Yorkshire Devolution Deal, March 2020, para 14

508 Q235 (Lord Kerslake, UK2070 Commission)

509 Q162 (Jamie Driscoll, Metro Mayor, North of Tyne Combined Authority)

510 Qq60–61(Ed Hammond, Centre for Public Scrutiny). See also Q62 (Andrew Walker, Local Government Information Unit), Q235 (Lord Kerslake, UK2070 Commission)

511 Q164 (James Palmer, Metro Mayor, Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority), (Jamie Driscoll, Metro Mayor, North of Tyne Combined Authority)

512 Liverpool City Region Combined Authority (POD0018)

513 Professor Francesca Gains (POD0009)

514 Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (PDE0033)

515 Sheffield City Region Combined Authority (PDE0016)

516 Centre for Public Scrutiny (PDE0002)

518 Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, Review of Local Government Complaints 2020–21, July 2021, p 9

519 Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman (POD0004), Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman (LGSCO) (POD0021)

520 Q51 (Francesca Gains, University of Manchester)

521 Centre for Cities (PDE0030

522 Core Cities (PDE0012)

523 Durham County Council (PDE0001), Centre for Cities (PDE0030), Regional Studies Association (POD0019)

524 North East Combined Authority (PDE0017). See also Royal Town Planning Institute (POD0010)

525 Core Cities (PDE0012), CBI (PDE0031), UK2070 Commission (POD0012)

526 Centre for Cities (PDE0030), Regional Studies Association (POD0019)

527 Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly Leadership Board (PDE0014)

528 Professor Francesca Gains (POD0009)

Published: 1 October 2021 Site information    Accessibility statement