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Structure of CAs too complex to drive real change, warns NAO

The introduction of combined authorities has led to the structure of local government becoming too complicated to drive real change, an independent review has found.

In a report released today by the National Audit Office (NAO), the new CAs were described as having “inherently complex structures” that had been added to “England’s already complicated local government arrangements”.

Researchers also found that the evidence behind investment, decision-making and oversight at a sub-national level being linked to positive local economic outcomes was “mixed and inconclusive”.

Another downside of the structure found by the NAO was that local councillors increasingly had limited capacity over the overview and scrutiny of CAs.

The auditors also pointed out the problem that many of the six CA mayors elected in May had made commitments for policies outside of their remit as metro mayor.

It also criticised the fact that the CAs were not uniform, and that there was a great deal of variation in the type of devolution deal struck in each region, leading to further layers of complexity.

Among other recommendations, the NAO called for the DCLG to continue working with the CAs to develop plans for assessing their impact and demonstrating the value they add to regions.

Amyas Morse, head of the NAO, said: “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.”

And Simon Edwards, director of the County Councils Network (CCN), commented that the report reflected the concerns of the majority of his organisation’s members.

“This report from the NAO highlights many of the concerns the majority of CCN members raised over the prospect of mayoral combined authorities in county areas: an added layer of bureaucracy in an already complex landscape, a lack of co-terminosity with key public-sector partners, and questions over whether this format would lead to economic growth in rural areas,” he said.

“As CCN’s recent report from Oxford Economics demonstrates, there are significant benefits for the English economy if government was to devolve public spending to county areas,” Edwards argued.

“But as the NAO demonstrates, devolution should be based around current county geographies and the strong local leadership already in place.”

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