The Department for Communities and Local Government has more work to do in supporting fledgling combined authority areas, the National Audit Office has said.
According to the public spending watchdog, the department has a key ongoing role in ensuring the sub-regional groupings of local authorities get their own local plans in place, and that their operations are adequately scrutinised.
While the progress report does not find fault with the department’s work to date – and indeed acknowledged its promotion efforts in the run-up to May’s city-region mayoral elections – it flags risks over the ability of local councillors in combined authority areas to hold the bodies to account.
It also said the introduction of combined-authority groupings had added “inherently complex structures to England’s already complicated local government arrangements” with “inconclusive” evidence that the improved local economic outcomes would result from the new tier of decision-making.
A further issue was the potential for Brexit to leave the likes of Greater Manchester, the West Midlands, Liverpool and the West of England, with a “more pressing” regeneration role as combined authority areas are more reliant on EU regeneration funding than London and the South East.
The NAO said DCLG needed to continue providing support combined authorities as they developed their local plans and sought to evidence the value those proposals would add; it also called for periodic reviews of governance frameworks and oversight of joint-working arrangements.
NAO head Amyas Morse said there was a clear purpose to the existence of combined authorities, particularly in metropolitan areas dealing with cross-cutting issues such as transport and economic regeneration.
However he cautioned: “For combined authorities to deliver real progress and not just be another ‘curiosity of history’ like other regional structures before them, they will need to demonstrate that they can both drive economic growth and also contribute to public sector reform.”
Six mayors were elected to combined authorities in England in May.
The NAO noted that candidates had “frequently” made policy commitments that extended beyond the current remits of the offices they were seeking, bringing into question the extent to which those mayors could be seen as “credible local advocates” if they could not deliver on those pledges.
The report suggested that new mayors were likely to seek an expanded role in the same way as the role of Mayor of London had broadened.