Budget 2021: How important are Combined Authorities?

During his short tenure as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak has rolled from crisis to crisis. He could be forgiven, therefore, for seeking to enjoy a budget which felt…normal?

Supported by optimistic forecasts for growth and economic recovery, the budget outlined was more generous than many had presumed. Whilst we are still awaiting the finer details, and these will emerge in the coming days, the overarching tone was positive about the UK’s prospects – even with the spectre of inflation looming.

Tax cuts were plentiful. From Domestic Air Passenger Duty cuts, supporting the hard-hit airline industry, Business Rates for the hospitality and leisure sector, and Alcohol Duty cuts, Sunak worked hard to re-cultivate the Conservative’s low-tax pedigree – even finding more money for the NHS, education, and transport.

For the regions – and the West Midlands in particular – it was a mixed bag.

The first round of Levelling-Up funding was allocated by the Chancellor, investing £1.7bn across more than 100 different areas. This represents direct Government funding in communities – by-passing some of the structures previously relied upon by Conservative governments.

Combined Authorities, which have been the vehicle for Government spending across the regions, seemed overlooked.

Funding for transport investment in CA areas, including £1bn for the West Midlands, was pre-briefed and the announcement shared amongst all Combined Authority areas – hardly a bespoke package.

Aside from this, there was a loose commitment made to a ‘London-style’ transport system across our regional economies, but this certainly needs more detail.

Mayor of the West Midlands, Andy Street, could not even boast a name-check by the Chancellor as he often could under previous governments. The concern is that this marks a shift away from regional devolution back to a more direct approach to regional funding.

Street will no doubt already be working hard to re-assert the West Midlands’ ability to manage and direct central government funding, even if the current government seems reticent.

This most likely reflects the importance of the Levelling-Up agenda, and a willingness from Westminster to keep control of the policy. There will be plenty for Andy Street, and other Metro Mayors to mull over, as they consider the implications of this Budget.

However, for now, investment in transport and in Levelling-Up will keep many MPs and councillors happy – even if the devil is in the detail.