On 26 January 2021, the House of Lords is due to debate the West Yorkshire Combined Authority (Election of Mayor and Functions) Order 2021 (‘the draft order’). This draft order would provide for the establishment of a directly elected mayor for the West Yorkshire Combined Authority. It would also set out specified functions that both the mayor and the West Yorkshire Combined Authority would be responsible for.

The draft order would apply to England only, specifically the local government areas of Bradford, Calderdale, Kirklees, Leeds and Wakefield.

The draft order was laid under the draft affirmative procedure. It must be approved by both Houses before it can be brought into force.

What would the draft order do?

The draft order would have several functions. Firstly, it would establish the office of Mayor of West Yorkshire. This first election of the mayor would be held on 6 May 2021. Subsequent elections would then take place in 2024 and every fourth year thereafter.

The newly elected mayor would become the chairperson of the West Yorkshire Combined Authority (WYCA) and be permitted to appoint a political advisor. Combined authorities consist of neighbouring councils who share and coordinate responsibilities and powers. An elected mayor leads eight of the ten combined authorities currently in existence in England. These are known as ‘mayoral combined authorities’. The draft order would make WYCA the ninth mayoral combined authority in England.

The draft order would also grant several functions to the WYCA. A selection of these functions would be exercised by the mayor only, whilst others would be exercised by the combined authority.

For example, the mayor would be granted powers to designate a mayoral development area. This would make way for the creation of a mayoral development corporation (‘MDC’). An MDC is a statutory body that focuses on the regeneration of a mayoral development area. It would have powers to establish infrastructure, and also the ability to acquire, develop, hold and dispose of land and property. Once the mayoral development area has been established, a separate order would be introduced into Parliament in order to set up the MDC.

Other mayoral functions would include the power to draw up local transport plans and strategies, and the ability to pay grants to bus service operators.

WYCA functions would include powers relating to education, skills and training, housing, regeneration and planning. For example, the WYCA would have the power to acquire and dispose of land, and to regenerate, develop and manage land holdings. Other WYCA functions cover transport and the mayoral development corporation.

The draft order would transfer Police and Crime Commissioner (‘PCC’) powers for West Yorkshire to the WYCA from 10 May 2021. PCCs are elected representatives who are responsible for ensuring the delivery of an effective police service within their force area. The existing role of PCC for West Yorkshire is currently undertaken by Mark Burns-Williamson. If the draft order is approved, the mayor would be treated as the PCC for West Yorkshire. The WYCA would be responsible for the property, rights and liabilities (such as those relating to contracts of employment) of the PCC.

Why was the draft order introduced?

The Conservative Party made a commitment to devolving power across the UK in its 2019 manifesto. For England, the Conservative Party said its ambition was:

[…] for full devolution across England, building on the successful devolution of powers to city region mayors, Police and Crime Commissioners and others, so that every part of our country has the power to shape its own destiny.

The manifesto said that plans for English devolution would be published in a white paper in 2020. However, the white paper remains unpublished. On 15 January 2021, the Government confirmed that the English Devolution and Local Recovery white paper would be published in due course and would provide details of the Government’s vision for expanding devolution across England.

Devolution deal discussions continued to take place between the government and the WYCA. On 11 March 2020, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, confirmed that a devolution deal in West Yorkshire had been reached. Amongst other things, the deal would enable a mayor for West Yorkshire to be elected. It would also give the WYCA investment funds of £38 million per year for 30 years, in addition to other funding commitments.

The devolution deal has no statutory footing. The draft order is required to implement its provisions. Therefore, the government produced the draft order based on the devolution deal and presented it to the West Yorkshire councils and the WYCA. In November 2020, the councils and WYCA considered and agreed to the draft order that would implement the devolution deal. It was then laid before both Houses on 17 December 2020.

What was the reaction to devolution?

The WYCA held a public consultation, as required by statute, on the devolution deal and proposals for the order between 25 May and 19 July 2020. The consultation covered six key areas, including governance, transport, education and skills, planning and housing, PCC functions, and finance.

The Government said that 4,317 responses were submitted, with these indicating overall support. The explanatory memorandum that accompanies the draft order sets out some of the consultation’s key findings. This included local support for the proposed governance arrangements of the mayor and the devolution of transport related responsibilities.

However, some proposals were met with concern. In relation to PCC functions, the explanatory memorandum refers to concerns raised by West Yorkshire Police that transferring these functions to the mayor could dilute the focus on policing. However, the force supported the inclusion of a Deputy Mayor for Policing who would focus on policing and crime. The Office of the PCC also supported the proposal on balance, but highlighted the limited time that remained for transferring the PCC functions to the mayor before the May 2021 election.

The Government believes that enabling the new mayor to have oversight of policing in West Yorkshire is important because it:

[…] not only preserves the democratic accountability already established under the PCC model but, by joining up oversight of public services, promotes greater collaboration and ensures a wider perspective is taken into consideration when tackling important issues such as crime.

Concerns were also raised about the number of responses received to the WYCA consultation. The Leader of Leeds City Council, Judith Blake, is cited by the Yorkshire Evening Post as saying that the West Yorkshire consultation had achieved the highest number of responses of all consultations on English regional devolution. However, the Leader of the Conservative Group for Leeds City Council, Andrew Carter, called this into question:

For West Yorkshire to say 4,000 responses out of a population of two million is a success stretches credibility to its absolute limits. […] I accept we have consulted in a difficult time, but the message is clear—the general public, for whatever reason, are not sure. It is therefore beholden upon all of us that that is the case. There has been no ringing endorsement for this deal.

What parliamentary scrutiny has there been?

The House of Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee (SLSC) and the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments (JCSI) considered the draft order on 12 and 13 January 2020 respectively.

The SLSC noted the order as an instrument of interest. It stated that whilst the explanatory memorandum said that “conferring functions to the WYCA would lead to operational efficiencies that could lead to reduced costs”, it regretted that the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government had not provided any financial assessment of the changes. The JCSI decided that the draft order did not need to be reported to both Houses.

Following concerns about the potential impact that the Covid-19 pandemic could have on scheduled May 2021 elections, Cat Smith, the Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office and Young People and Voter Engagement, asked the Government on 13 January 2021 to make a statement on this issue. Chloe Smith, the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution, said that the position of elections remained under review. She stated that the Government had been working with the Electoral Commission to produce guidance for elections, based on public health advice, that would be updated where necessary ahead of the polls if elections were to take place. In response, the shadow minister said she was disappointed the Government was unable to confirm how the elections would be “Covid-secure”, stating that local councils, electoral staff, candidates, campaigners and the public needed urgent clarity. The minister said that the Government would continue to update the House on its preparations.

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Cover image by Illiya Vjestica on Unsplash.