Mayors raise concerns over weak adult education budget devolution powers

The six regional mayors tasked with overseeing devolution of the adult education budget have met the Department for Education to “voice concerns” over the process.

High among the issues that are worrying the combined authorities are “inadequate” influence and a lack of funding during the transition year, as well as “challenging” timescales for the handing over of power.

The transition year is set to take place over 2018/19, after the original plan to fully devolve the budget was delayed by a year.

Tim Bowles, the mayor of the West of England combined authority, said the mayors were “encouraged” by the fact the DfE is “actually now listening” to concerns about implementation and that dialogue was “now becoming positive”.

Tim Bowles

He explained that the West of England is expecting between £15 million and £20 million a year once the devolution is implemented in 2019/20, even though this would “never be enough to meet the ambitions that I have”.

He also confirmed that his region would be seeking additional funding elsewhere.

A report submitted to the Tees Valley combined authority cabinet in November revealed that the authorities were given a choice of two arrangements for the transition year: an “influencing” option or a strict “delegated” option.

The “influencing” option would see the combined authorities attempt to guide how the Education and Skills Funding Agency spends its budget in their regions during the transition year.

The extent of that influence is unclear, but the Tees Valley report described it as “inadequate” and of “limited benefit”.

Under the delegated option, the education secretary would delegate AEB functions and funding to the authority.

This body would then act as an “agent” of the secretary within a “rigid set of parameters” to commission skills provision, fund providers and manage delivery. For this option, the authority would need to pass “stringent practical readiness conditions”.

The report warned this option “creates too many risks for the combined authority without adequate corresponding benefits” and does not have a clear legal basis, and there are concerns it could create “additional risk for providers receiving this funding”.

A spokesperson for the DfE confirmed that every combined authority including Tees Valley had decided to take the influencing option for the transitional year.

She added that the devolution was “progressing well” and details about the transition period would be revealed “in due course”, despite the fact the government had promised to give more information on it at the start of this year.

A spokesperson for Liverpool City region confirmed it would have “no actual delegated power on the way the budget is spent” during the transitional year, and said it was not known how much funding it would receive after that.

“There has been progress with the DfE in recent months,” he added. “The timescales remain challenging, but we will continue to work at pace to enable the devolution of the AEB to proceed on time.”

Seven combined authorities have signed devolution deals alongside London to take control of AEB spending in their regions, with the newly announced North of Tyne combined authority expected to do the same.

Sheffield City region, one of the seven set for devolution, will elect a mayor in May.

The other combined authorities who will be receiving devolved AEB budgets are Greater Manchester, West Midlands, and Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.