Combined authorities are local government entities set up by two or more neighbouring councils wishing to coordinate responsibilities and powers over services, including aspects of transport, housing and social care. They are exclusive to England, where there are currently 10.
Eight combined authorities are mayoral combined authorities, which means that they are led by metro mayors who are directly elected via supplementary vote. All mayoral combined authorities have agreed devolution deals with central government, in which additional powers and budgets have been transferred to the authorities from Westminster. Metro mayors were introduced as a requirement of these deals to ensure that the process of devolution remained accountable.
Combined authorities were introduced by the Labour Government in the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009. The first was established in Greater Manchester in 2011 but this was followed by a three-year lull in which no others were formed.
The agenda for mayoral combined authorities has since accelerated, as they have formed the basis of a Westminster initiative for English devolution. The Coalition Government (2010–15) aspired to build ‘strong city regions’ with integrated public services in order to boost growth.
The first deal was agreed between Westminster and the Greater Manchester Combined Authority in 2014, while other councils were encouraged to form mayoral authorities and secure deals of their own. Statutory powers for metro mayors were introduced in the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016.
The two non-mayoral combined authorities exist in places where devolution negotiations have broken down due to disagreements among councils and between councils and Westminster. While the Greater London Authority is a devolved body led by a mayor, it is distinct from mayoral combined authorities and has a different set of powers and budgets.
Combined authorities are concentrated in and around English city regions. As well as Greater Manchester, they include the Liverpool City Region – which covers the six councils from the wider Liverpool region – and the West of England, which is made up of two city councils, namely Bath and North East Somerset and Bristol City, and the more rural South Gloucestershire Council.
All combined authorities lead on planning and strategy for regional transport, skills training and economic development. The eight mayoral combined authorities have further devolved powers and budgets, although the number of powers and budgets varies between them. Generally, each devolution deal includes a capital investment fund of between £450 million and £1.095 billion, which is paid in yearly instalments over three decades. These funds can be used to finance transport, housing, and development projects, such as High Speed 2 in the case of the West Midlands.
Deals also often include a devolved transport budget and powers covering the provision of business-support services. Other than the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough metro mayor, each metro mayor is able to establish Mayoral Development Corporations, organisations that invest in land and infrastructure with the aim of boosting regional economic growth.
The adult education budget – funding education and skills training for learners above the age of 19 – will be devolved to six of the eight mayoral combined authorities from the academic year 2019–20. The two exceptions, in Sheffield and the North of Tyne, will take over the adult education budget for their regions the following year.
Some mayoral combined authorities have also secured a wider range of devolved powers:
- The deal agreed for Greater Manchester included powers over health and social care integration, children’s services, offender management, housing construction through a spatial development strategy, and devolved responsibility for police and crime.
- The West of England deal included access to more housing grants and planning powers.
The chart below shows the number of powers devolved to each mayoral combined authority:
Mayoral combined authorities are led by metro mayors who make decisions about policy and spending in conjunction with council leaders from each constituent council. Both the metro mayor and each of the council leaders have a single vote and must approve or oppose decisions.
The metro mayor’s approval is needed for a decision to be taken forward. This means that council leaders cannot run the combined authority independently. Conversely, important decisions – on subjects including the budget and the local transport plan – can be overturned by a two-thirds majority of council leaders. Some conurbation-wide decisions, such as on spatial development, require the unanimous agreement of council leaders and the metro mayor.
There are a few powers held exclusively by the metro mayor, including the ability to establish Mayoral Development Corporations. However, the metro mayor must seek the approval of the council leader in whose area the corporation is to be located before acting on this power.
There are four Labour and four Conservative metro mayors. In most cases, their party also controls the largest number of constituent councils. There are two exceptions: in the Tees Valley, where the metro mayor is a Conservative but three of five councils are led by independents, and in the West Midlands, where most council leaders are Labour while the metro mayor is a Conservative. This has led to disagreements: in 2018, Labour council leaders in the West Midlands refused to approve the metro mayor’s proposed council tax precept.
In non-mayoral combined authorities, key decisions are made by a leadership board made up of constituent council leaders with voting rights comparable to those in mayoral authorities.
Combined authorities manage capital budgets which depend heavily on discretionary grants from central government and – in the case of mayoral combined authorities – the funding agreed as part of their devolution deal. For example, the West Midlands Combined Authority manages an £8 billion capital budget, of which £1.1 billion (14%) is drawn directly from its devolution deal and a further £2.5 billion (31%) from Department for Transport grants.
Meanwhile, combined authorities derive much of their operational funding from transport levies and membership fees paid by their constituent councils. In the West Midlands, day-to-day activities in 2018–19 were funded in part by devolution deal grants (25% of the revenue budget) but also from sources including a transport levy paid by upper-tier local authorities (66%).
Five mayoral combined authorities are also the beneficiaries of pilot schemes for 100% retention of business rates revenues, meaning that they retain all business rates revenues that are usually sent to central government. Additionally, all mayoral combined authorities – with the exception of the West of England – can raise a council tax precept to fund their projects and activities. While a precept was rejected by council leaders in the West Midlands, other combined authorities, including in Greater Manchester and Liverpool, have used precepts to raise funds.
Even so, the overall reliance of combined authorities on central government funding means that the authorities can face financial problems if they fail to match Westminster’s spending priorities. In September 2018, the Government withdrew £68 million of funding from the Greater Manchester Combined Authority after the authority reduced its targets for housing construction.
While new mayoral combined authorities have been established since 2015, the Government’s long-term plan for English devolution has lost momentum following the Brexit vote and the end of George Osborne’s tenure as Chancellor. The Government has committed to launching a ‘devolution framework’ for England and, in September 2018, promised to provide "clarity across England on what devolution means for different administrations so all authorities operate in a common framework." However, details of this framework have not been forthcoming.