Devolution explained

Everything you need to know about devolution in England.

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What is devolution?

In England, devolution is the transfer of powers and funding from national to local government. It is important because it ensures that decisions are made closer to the local people, communities and businesses they affect.

Devolution will provide greater freedoms and flexibilities at a local level, meaning councils can work more effectively to improve public services for their area.

The result will be more effective, better targeted public services, greater growth and stronger partnerships between public, private and community leaders in local areas.

Without devolution, decisions will continue to be made in Westminster, removed from communities that they affect. 

Why does devolution matter and how does it affect me?

We believe it is important because it ensures that decisions are made closer to the local people, communities and businesses they affect. Devolution will provide greater freedoms and flexibilities at a local level, meaning councils can work more effectively to improve public services for their area.

The result will be more effective, better targeted public services, greater growth and stronger partnerships between public, private and community leaders in local areas

How has the process of devolution in England worked to date?

In November 2014, the Government announced the first devolution deal with Greater Manchester, followed by a deal with Cornwall in July 2015. At this point, the Government also invited proposals from local areas as part of the 2015 Spending Review. It asked them to submit their proposals by early September 2015. The Government received 34 bids from local areas.

Of these, 12 were brought forward initially for negotiation and 11 areas have confirmed devolution deals signed off by both local and national leaders. At the time, many of the unsuccessful areas felt they lacked a clear response from Government as to why their proposals were not taken forward. There was also concern that the criteria for success was not transparent enough or focused too heavily on the need for a directly elected Mayor. 

Which areas have devolution deals and what powers have been devolved to them?

Areas that were successful in putting together devolution deals went through a process whereby their initial proposals were tested with relevant government departments. Over time this resulted in a significant degree of standardisation across each of the devolution deal areas. In practice, some of the powers outlined below are exercised by the Mayor and some by the combined authority.

The agreed deals had a common focus on driving local economic growth, providing for the decentralisation of powers over skills and transport policy, the creation of a ‘single pot’ to support local investment and the ability to raise additional revenue through financial instruments such as a Mayoral precept.

More recently, Mayoral combined authorities have also led on the development of Local Industrial Strategies, (whereas in areas without directly elected mayors these have been led by Local Enterprise Partnerships).

What will the future of devolution look like?

Although devolution deals have remained a possibility since the first combined authority mayoral elections in 2017, only three additional areas have agreed a devolution deal since then.

Last year, following calls from the LGA for an English Devolution Act, the Government announced the upcoming launch of an English Devolution White Paper in the Queen’s Speech. More recently, the Minister for Regional Growth and Local Government, Simon Clarke MP, gave a speech outlining his strong backing for a mayoral approach and stating that a ‘Devolution and Local Recovery White Paper’ would establish “the unitarisation of councils as a vital first step for negotiating these mayoral devolution deals in the future”.

We expect the Government will seek to strike new devolution deals that contain many of the elements already devolved to existing mayoral combined authorities, with a similar focus on economic regeneration, transport and skills. By contrast, those areas that have already secured deals are likely to push for greater fiscal and financial independence.

What is a combined authority?

Combined authorities are corporate bodies formed of two or more council areas, established with or without an elected mayor. They enable groups of two or more councils to take decisions across boundaries on issues which extend beyond the interests of any one individual local authority. They are a legal body set up using secondary legislation (Combined Authority Orders) but are locally owned and must be initiated by the councils involved.

Where have combined authorities already been established?

Mayoral combined authorities

- Cambridgeshire and Peterborough

- Greater Manchester

- Liverpool City Region

- North of Tyne

- Sheffield City Region

- Tees Valley

- West Midlands

- West of England

Combined authorities

- North East Combined Authority

- West Yorkshire Combined Authority (soon to be an Mayoral Combined Authority)

How is a combined authority formed?

There are multiple routes to establishing a combined authority. Under the original procedure from the 2009 Act, a council or group of councils may carry out a ‘governance review’, which must publish a ‘scheme’ recommending the creation of a combined authority. Publication of the scheme requires the consent of the local authority areas included in the scheme. The Secretary of State may then agree to create a combined authority via secondary legislation.

Alternatively, via the 2016 Act, the Secretary of State may decide to establish a combined authority, if the councils in the relevant area consent. The Secretary of State must hold a public consultation, unless one has already been carried out locally and a ‘scheme’ has been published. The Secretary of State must be satisfied that the establishment of a combined authority is likely to “improve the exercise of statutory functions” in the area in question.

An existing combined authority may be changed into a mayoral combined authority via a further Order made by the Secretary of State. All the member authorities must consent to this. However, the 2016 Act provides that any authorities that do not consent must be removed from the combined authority when the elected mayor is established.

For more information, please see the LGA’s publication Combined Authorities – A plain English Guide.

How are mayoral combined authorities structured?

The directly elected mayor is a member of the combined authority. The mayor has one vote, however combined authority legislation often requires the mayor’s vote is included in majorities in favour of a decision. As a result, the mayor has a veto over some of the authority’s decision-making and member authorities may not be able to make decisions in these instances.

The legislation setting up the combined authority may confer functions only on the mayor or combined authority and this is important as the participating local authorities also have specific powers as members of the combined authority.

Although not a requirement, mayors are given the opportunity to establish a ‘cabinet’ consisting of local authority leaders representing the member authorities as well as the opportunity to appoint a ‘political adviser’.  Functions can then be delegated to Cabinet members, committees, or combined authority officers. Appointment to cabinet portfolios is separate from the ‘membership’ role that local authorities have within combined authorities.

Who are the current directly elected combined authority mayors and mayors covered by separate legislation holding different powers from local authority mayors?

- Tim Bowles (Conservative), Mayor of the West of England

- Andy Burnham (Labour), Mayor of Greater Manchester

- Ben Houchen (Conservative), Mayor of the Tees Valley

- James Palmer (Conservative), Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough

- Steve Rotherham (Labour), Mayor of Liverpool City Region

- Dan Jarvis (Labour), Mayor of Sheffield City Region

- Jamie Driscoll (Labour), Mayor of the North of Tyne

- Andy Street (Conservative), Mayor of the West Midlands

- Sadiq Khan (Labour), Mayor of London

How long does a Mayor's term run for?

Directly elected mayoral terms usually last for four years.

What does having a directly elected mayor mean for police and crime commissioners?

The Mayor of Greater Manchester’s role was combined with the role of the Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) in 2017 as it is the case that the two roles can be merged if the commissioner agrees. In May 2020 the Mayor of the West Midlands took on the role of PCC, too. There is generally little overlap between combined authority boundaries and police force boundaries. The relationship between PCCs and Metro Mayors is likely to be considered as part of the White Paper.

How are local decisions scrutinised within a combined authority?

A combined authority is legally required to establish at least one Overview and Scrutiny Committee and an Audit Committee. The Mayor and members of the Combined Authority must respond to the reports and recommendations produced by these committees. The Overview and Scrutiny Committee has the power to ‘call-in’ decisions that have been made but not implemented and can ask that these decisions be reviewed. The committee can also require the Mayor, members or officers of the Combined Authority to come before it and answer questions; any such request must be complied with.