Cabinet members at Cheshire West & Chester Council are being urged by the leader and chief executive to support the move towards a combined authority with a directly elected mayor and spending controls transferred from Whitehall.
A strongly worded report by chief executive Gerald Meehan for Cllr Samantha Dixon, leader, sets out the case for working with neighbouring authorities or else face missing out on extra money and powers that rival areas of the North are receiving.
Meehan wrote: “Devolution offers Cheshire West and Chester and its sub-regional partners the opportunity to gain much greater control over its destiny. As public finances become increasingly challenging, having local decision-making powers over significant areas of national government spend is a much better position to be in than the current system whereby a number of key priorities for local services and funding are decided in London. The devolution agenda also continues to be seen by Government as part of their continued focus on the North and aspiration to develop a Northern Powerhouse.”
The chief executive explained the deal would be “about assuming additional powers, control and resources” not transferring existing local authority powers from council to a combined authority.
However, a “viable geography” for the combined authority patch has yet to be confirmed. Warrington members are debating among themselves and considering asking to join Liverpool City Region. Warrington is due to consider the options at its executive board in due course. CWAC said it would welcome Warrington’s inclusion and still hopes a deal can be reached. But Warrington’s chosen path would not affect CWAC’s commitment to a deal.
CWAC “will not move at the pace of the slowest partner”.
In September 2015, Cheshire & Warrington LEP submitted its economic strategy to government and entered the negotiation process with civil servants and ministers at the Department for Communities & Local Government and the Treasury. A planned consultation was due to be held in summer 2016 but did not go ahead, however, after Warrington’s indecision.
Since June 2016, Meehan added, CWAC has continued informal discussions with DCLG, neighbouring authorities and others. Partners include Cheshire & Warrington Local Enterprise Partnership, North Wales Economic Ambition Board, Liverpool City Region Combined Authority and councils in Stoke and Staffordshire.
Partnership working can be seen in a joint Cheshire and Warrington bid for Local Growth Fund round three, part of the £556m for Northern LEPs trailed in the Autumn Statement last week. There has also been a joint investment prospectus published for the Mersey Dee Alliance area that covers industrial estates at Deeside on the Welsh border and a “significant regional rail growth programme and a campaign with North Wales called Growth Track 360.”
Meehan said there were positive meetings on 3 and 17 November with the minister for the Northern Powerhouse, Andrew Percy.
If successful, the devolution deal would cover transport and infrastructure, skills, housing, investment funding and business rates, science and innovation, assets and public estate, worklessness and low incomes, and wider public service reform and new investment models.
Meehan set out a proposed timescale with a target of March 2017 for a “formal engagement with ministers and civil servants on the parameters of a potential deal” and “in principle agreement” in April. Public consultation would take place in May and June before a council vote on submissions of final arrangements to government in July. Communities Secretary Sajid Javid could agree the parliamentary order setting out new powers in September, with a deal becoming operational and powers transferred in May 2018.
Meehan warned: “Should members decide not to progress with devolution then the risk is potential impact on the future profile, investment and economic growth in Cheshire West and Chester as resources and growth increasingly flow towards our City neighbours, and other sub-regions that have or are progressing to devolution. Without a deal, relationships with North Wales could be impacted due to the cross-border nature of the Mersey-Dee proposition.”
CWAC’s cabinet will decide on Wednesday whether to commit to the devolution deal with sub-regional partners or not.
Cheshire East established a cross-party working group to explore the devolution agenda in October with a view to working with CWAC if internal agreement can be reached.