Third Reading

Part of Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill [HL] – in the House of Lords at 5:00 pm on 21st July 2015.

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Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government 5:00 pm, 21st July 2015

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, for her comments and for what was quite a productive meeting yesterday together with the noble Lords, Lord McKenzie and Lord Beecham. I also thank my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay for clarifying the whole situation in a few sentences although, for absolute completeness, I shall go through the whole thing.

Amendment 2 would enable combined authorities to work in partnership with other combined authorities, and Amendment 8 would enable local authorities to work in such partnerships. Amendment 6 would provide greater flexibility for the Secretary of State to establish a combined authority even if the required geographical conditions were not all met. Following our discussion yesterday, I hope that I can provide clarity and reassure the noble Baroness that the amendments are not necessary.

As my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay said, there are no impediments to local authorities and combined authorities collaborating and working in partnerships, including through establishing joint committees. A joint committee could comprise a number of local authorities, some local authorities and a combined authority, or several combined authorities with or without some local authorities. The power to form joint committees is in the Local Government Act 1972. It is exercisable simply by the authorities concerned deciding to form a joint committee. A joint committee can be responsible for exercising such functions of its members as those members decide they wish to exercise in partnership with others through that joint committee.

On Amendment 6, the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009 provides that a combined authority can be established across an area covering two or more whole local authority areas, and that a single local authority can be only within the area of one combined authority. In this context, local authority means a district council or a county council, which include unitaries. The amendment seeks to change that to enable the Secretary of State to establish a combined authority if those conditions are not met and if the authorities consent and the Secretary of State considers it appropriate to enable different functions to be carried out in different areas. That could, for example, enable the area of a local authority to be included within the area of more than one combined authority—in other words, for there to be overlapping combined authority areas. Such overlapping areas would not be appropriate as that would make no sense in terms of our local government law and structures. A combined authority area is a local government area, as we discussed yesterday. Therefore, having overlapping combined authority areas would make no more sense than having overlapping county areas.

However, that is not to say that there is not the flexibility for a council to be involved, if it makes economic sense, with, say, two combined authorities. For example, five districts in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire are non-constituent councils in the Sheffield City Region combined authority. Those same councils are proposing that they, together with the relevant county councils and unitary councils, form combined authorities. Furthermore, the provisions in the Bill enable non-contiguous authorities —to which the noble Baroness referred at length—to come together and form a combined authority, parts of which area are not contiguous. Yesterday we discussed some ridiculous theoretical examples of that. This flexibility for involvement in combined authorities, when linked with the long-standing flexibilities for forming joint committees, provides, I believe, for an extremely wide range of options for joint working and for councils to collaborate together both on delivering public services and on promoting economic growth, including in the context of devolution-type deals.

We also agree with the noble Baroness that it can be effective and efficient for local areas to work together across different geographies on different issues. For example, a functional economic area over which local bodies should collaborate and work jointly to promote economic growth may not be an appropriate area over which to provide health and social services.

The noble Baroness also mentioned, as did the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, discussions with areas, some of them quite small. I can confirm that there are ongoing discussions with such areas. In fact, last week I met representatives from South West Councils, which includes Plymouth and Exeter, to discuss such matters.

I turn to some specific questions. The noble Baroness talked about the relationship between the combined authority and the local enterprise partnership. It is a partnership between business and local authorities and there should be a very logical relationship between the LEP and the combined authority. She also talked about powers devolved to local authorities. Clause 16 gives powers to devolve powers to county and district councils. That is irrespective of whether the council to which the powers are being devolved is a constituent or a non-constituent council of a combined authority.

I hope that I have explained the flexibility for areas to work jointly with different partners in different geographies according to different needs. With those explanations, I hope that the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw her amendment.