Combined Authorities: Effective Collaboration or Confusing Competition?

Kate Broadhurst, Centre for Business in Society

On 5th May 2017 Andy Street the Conservative Party candidate and former John Lewis boss was elected as the first mayor of the West Midlands. In leading the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) and its cabinet of the seven West Midlands council leaders, he will direct the devolution deal between the WMCA and the Government, which will see more than £1.1 billion made available for investment in the region over the next 30 years. His broad remit will be to secure inclusive growth and prosperity for the region with a focus on transport investment, innovation, strategic planning, skills, new homes and jobs.

The creation of Combined Authorities through the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009 and the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016 provides another attempt to resolve the inequality in place based economics by filling the ‘missing space’ between national and local governance (Hildreth and Bailey 2014). History is littered with earlier attempts; more recently the nine Regional Development Agencies that were launched by the Labour government in 1999 and abolished by the Coalition in 2010 in favour of a series of 38 newly formed Local Enterprise Partnerships. LEPs operate as voluntary partnerships between local authorities and businesses to determine local economic priorities and lead on economic growth and job creation within their areas. Add to the mix Midlands Engine Strategy that provides another partnership in the region seeking to address productivity barriers the UK’s economic governance landscape has never looked so complex.

In the pursuit of economic growth Britain has historically adopted a space neutral and centralised approach to policy making (Hildreth and Bailey 2013) but the influence of global shift has brought the importance of local geographical, historical and socio cultural influences into sharper focus and economic policy has accordingly taken greater account of place (Dicken 2011). That said, there remains confusion and tension in UK policy making between the two schools of thought:

  • institutional systems that argue for space neutral policy making that are centrally driven and
  • place based policy making that draw on local skills, resources and culture (Hildreth and Bailey 2014).

All forms of sub-national governance are reliant on effective collaboration. Governance by partnership has grown in popularity since the 1990s and the wealth of research evidence into the approach provides a steer as to the drivers and inhibitors of partnership effectiveness that include:

  • clarity of purpose and vision
  • clear strategic direction
  • partner engagement with time spent nurturing partners and building trust
  • ready access to sufficient resources
  • strong on governance arrangements whilst of fleet on foot on structure

The overlapping layers of partnership suggest a lack of vision and strategic direction from Whitehall as to how the various local delivery mechanisms knit together. The West Midlands Combined Authority for example covers three LEP areas who are all all non-constituent members of WMCA in their own right. But within Coventry and Warwickshire LEP, Coventry City Council is a constituent member with full voting rights whereas the County and District authorities across Warwickshire have chosen non-constituent status and as such have fewer voting rights. The multiplication of Joint Committees, Strategic Boards with accompanying Strategic Economic Plans muddies the water further. The multiplication and overlap of sub-national partnerships all operating across the same geographic and thematic space has confused local partners perhaps most crucially local businesses whose engagement is crucial to the end goal of productivity and prosperity for all. And with a significant proportion of the monies flowing into these partnerships coming from the same central Whitehall pot the different layers of partnership are having to compete for the same finite resources; which begs the question – is this a conducive environment for effective collaboration?

Nigel Wilcock, Executive Director at the Institute of Economic Development recently described the situation as a confusing mess and called for clearer strategic direction. My empirical research at the Centre for Business in Society, Coventry University applies a Soft Systems Methodology (Checkland 2010) to explore the nature of collaboration within Local Enterprise Partnerships with the aim of developing a model at a time when clarity is much needed. The model will heighten understanding of what drives and inhibits LEPS and other sub national partnerships to provide guidance to all those working in the space of economic development looking to achieve collaborative advantage and avoid the traps that result in collaborative inertia (Huxham and Vangen 2005, Vangen and Huxham 2013).


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Coventry University