Combined Authorities do not rebuild democracy

by Professor Richard Hatcher, City of  Birmingham University

The policy of both the Tories and Labour is for the spread of Combined Authorities (CAs). The Greater Manchester Combined Authority was established in 2011. Combined authorities were established in the Sheffield City Region, West Yorkshire, the Liverpool City Region, and the North East in April 2014. Greater Manchester has since been granted a number of additional powers and funding streams by the Government. In addition, CAs are being proposed for areas including Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Cambridgeshire, the Tees Valley, Greater Bristol, PUSH (Portsmouth, Southampton and the Isle of Wight), Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire (as one unit), and Birmingham and the Black Country.

The spread of devolution to CAs marks a fundamental change in the model of local government in England. Far from devolving power to local communities, it creates a new regional centralised bureaucracy with even less democratic participation, as the new Greater Manchester CA demonstrates: all the power is in the hands of eleven people – a directly elected mayor, imposed by Osborne, and a ‘cabinet’ of the ten local authority council leaders.

The devolution plans don’t affect local school systems at present, but there are already some voices within the Labour Party advocating their incorporation.

A precedent for control of local school systems at a regional or sub-regional level is set by the proposal in Education and Children, Labour’s education policy document, for a new role of local Directors of School Standards. The idea is imported from the Labour Party’s Review of education structures, functions and the raising of standards for all: Putting students and parents first, known for short as the Blunkett Review, published in April 2014, and itself owes something to the Coalition’s Regional School Commissioners. The DSS would be responsible for ‘school improvement’ in an area covering two or more LAs, and would be appointed and employed jointly by them.

A chorus of approval 

In March Compass published the final report of its Inquiry into Education (which it claims is ‘supported by the NUT’). It says ‘responsibility for providing school places should lie with clusters of local authorities operating at a scale that supports strategic decision-making.’ Regarding Local Education Plans, ‘Larger areas, such as Greater Manchester, might be the right scale for strategic planning for skills and economic development as well as for local education planning and governance.’ (Appendices p3). Further ‘Overseeing the plans and holding to account education providers, including councils, would be the job of a new body, a local education board.’ It would ‘operate at a level above single local authorities’ (p4).

On 12 March John Bolt, secretary of the Socialist Educational Association, asked in his blog Education for Everyone ‘Is Devo-Manc radical enough? And why are schools left out?’ He answered his second question as follows:

For Labour though there could be an easy answer. Put the Director of School Standards within the combined authority framework answerable to a board made up of elected members and other stakeholders and ultimately to the elected Mayor or Leader.

And in the March issue of the SEA journal Education Politics Graham Clayton, a member of the New Visions for Education group, calls for new Regional Education Boards, comprising councillors appointed by its constituent councils, to replace existing local authorities. Each Board would employ the DSS as its chief education officer.

It is clear that a current of opinion has emerged within Labourist circles which accepts as its two premises the move to Combined Authorities and Labour’s Directors of School Standards, and on that basis makes the case for regional Education Boards to replace local authorities’ role in education.

Who would be the members of these Boards? According to Clayton it would be just councillors; according to Bolt it would be councillors and ‘other stakeholders’; for Compass it would be councillors and ‘representatives of other education interests’. It isn’t clear if the councillors would be chosen from the councils which make up the Combined Authority or would be elected on some other basis.

Not a democratic vision

These are not inspiring visions of participative democracy. But the reality is that the Labour leadership has absolutely no intention of creating any sort of democratic body at the level of the CA.

Labour’s policy on devolution to CAs makes no mention of any form of democratic governance of the CAs.

Nor are there any specific proposals to increase democratic participation in Labour’s education policy document Education and Children. It claims that ‘Labour will empower local communities to have a greater say about education in their area, rather than continue the top-down control approach to schools demonstrated by the current Government’ (p78) but is silent on what structures and procedures would enable local communities to effectively participate in decision-making in their local school system. Its predecessor the Blunkett Review does contain one innovative proposal for widening participation in policy-making: a local Education Panel.

This would include representation from schools in the area, parents and relevant Local Authority representatives, who would work with the DSS on the development of a long-term strategic plan for education, ensure commissioning decisions are taken in line with that plan and agree the budget proposed by the DSS.

But, significantly, the idea of local Education Panels is omitted from the Education and Children policy document.

The transfer of responsibility for school education from local authorities to CAs would remove it from even the very limited democratic accountability that exists at present through elected cabinet members for education and education scrutiny committees and leave power even more securely in the hands of unaccountable academies and academy chains.

Even if the CAs had some sort of elected assembly there is still an argument against them replacing local authorities in education, and that is the question of scale. While CAs might be appropriate for some public services and policy-making – for example regarding economic development or transport – their scale is not suited to democratic participation in the governance and accountability of local school systems. The proposed WMCA, for example, which would comprise six local authorities, would contain around a thousand state schools.

What is the alternative?

I think we have to argue for two things:

  • For school education to remain the responsibility of local authorities, and for these to be radically democratised to open them up to public participation. There should of course be collaboration between local authorities within a CA, as there will be on many issues. And this does not preclude Further Education being reintegrated into local government at CA level, for which the scale is more appropriate.
  • For CAs to be based on elected regional assemblies. This is the principle: there are several possible models. The assembly could be directly elected, as is the London Assembly, perhaps with an element of proportional representation, as is the Welsh Assembly. (Wales has a popular of 3 million, not that much bigger than GMCA’s 2.7m or WMCA’s 2.5m.) Or it could comprise a selection of councillors from the constituent local councils on a proportional political and geographical basis.

Further reading

For more comments on Education and Children see R Hatcher (2015) Labour’s new education policy document: tensions, ambivalences and silences. Forum: for promoting 3-19 comprehensive education. 57:1, 11-14.

For further discussion on democratization, see R Hatcher (2013) Democratising local school systems: participation and vision. In M Allen and P Ainley (eds) Education beyond the Coalition: reclaiming the agenda. London: Radicaled Books.

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2 Responses to Combined Authorities do not rebuild democracy

  1. Now it’s official – Tristram Hunt ‘said he would like to see groups of local authorities such as in Greater Manchester, Sheffield or Nottinghamshire assuming responsibility for school education, appointing independent directors responsible for commissioning schools…’ (in ‘Labour could ditch GCSEs within 10 years, says Tristram Hunt’, The Guardian, 23 April).

    So, if we follow the Greater Manchester model, the responsibility for the school systems of the 10 local authorities in the Combined Authority will be handed over to 11 people – that’s the ‘devo-Cabinet’ comprising the 10 council leaders and the directly elected mayor who will run the Greater Manchester Combined Authority.

    But unlike a council Cabinet they will not be answerable to a Greater Manchester council made up of all the elected councillors because there won’t be one. Nor will they be held to account by an Education Scrutiny Committee for Greater Manchester because there won’t be one of those either.

    However, in reality in Hunt’s scenario the real power will lie with the Combined Authority’s Director of School Standards, who though appointed by the CA will be ‘independent’ of it, not acting on its behalf as a normal council officer. So it will be the DSS who makes the decisions about new schools, for example, not the elected councillors or the elected mayor.

    This model removes the schools much further from any public involvement and democratic accountability than they are even now. If, in spite of protest, it goes ahead then two vital key demands come to the fore to reintroduce democratic accountability:
    – An elected assembly for each Combined Authority, along the lines of the London and Welsh Assemblies, with proportional representation.
    – A powerful Education Scrutiny Committee for each Combined Authority, comprising representatives of the schools as well as elected councillors.

    Richard Hatcher

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  2. Pingback: Labour’s education manifesto: academies, local authorities and the rest? | Reclaiming Schools

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