SPC announces new devolution project – ‘A strategy for the central South?’

Is there a strategy for the central South? A new SPC project

There is a widely-shared fear that central southern England is not attracting the additional resources and powers that are being enjoyed in other regions.

The former Treasury Minister, Lord Jim O’Neill, has criticised previous devolution proposals from central southern England, saying that they failed to identify clear priorities and distinctive outcomes for the area.[1]It is clear that progress in the future will depend on developing a clear regional strategy with broad political, business and public sector buy-in. It is also clear that the government has backed some sub-regional strategies (for example the Oxford-Cambridge corridor) with no formal devolution deals in place.

Many strategy documents and plans have been published for central southern England by LEPs, local authorities, statutory undertakings and business organisations. However, it is difficult to find an overview of these proposals, let alone an assessment of whether they create a coherent and complementary set of policies.

The new SPC project aims to address that shortfall. Rather than re-open the sensitive and difficult topic of devolution structures, we want to address the underlying question: is there a coherent strategy for central southern England? And, if not, where are the gaps and omissions? 

There is no comprehensive collation of the current strategies in place or being developed in the region. The project will bring that analysis together. It will cover for example: LEPs and cross-LEP initiatives; government, LEP and local authority-backed bodies such as Transport for the South-East; local authority strategies for development planning, transport, housing and local economic strategies; private sector-led initiatives from organisations such as EEF, FSB, CBI, IoD and Business South, and major employers such as ABP.

Taken together, existing plans and strategies cover most of the issues that would be contained in a regional strategy. Some are quite local in focus, but many have regional and national significance. But, covering different geographies and sometimes developed in silos, it is not clear whether taken together they form a coherent, integrated approach. Nor is it clear what weaknesses and omissions exist.  Aspiration and the capacity to deliver are not the same thing.

There is an urgent need to highlight the major problems we face collectively in the central South and assess how best they can be meet through a coherent regional strategy. Our project will allow us to take that overview of the plans and strategies for our region and their efficacy.

By doing so, we can help develop a clear and shared statement of regional priorities.  This will be of immediate value to any organisations seeking to champion the region but also provide the core content of any future devolution discussions.

The SPC project

Our initial research will support a series of stakeholder seminars that will examine the main policy areas in turn. The seminars will be based on a series of original analyses which summarise current plans and proposals. These papers, writtenin an accessible and non-academic style, and based on close collaboration with the appropriate LEPs, local authorities and other bodies, will be presented to an audience of key business interest, public authorities and other stakeholders.

Seminar structure: It is proposed to cover two related topics in each seminar. This will provide the best balance between attracting the appropriate audience for each event and giving sufficient time to discuss proposals. Our initial proposal is to cover the following topics (although this may be amended as research results emerge):

Seminar 1: planning and housing

Seminar 2: transport and infrastructure, including broadband

Seminar 3: higher education and innovation

Seminar 4: learning, skills and productivity (covering both HE and FE)

Seminar 5: energy and sustainability

The seminar discussions will be moderated to focus on areas of consensus support, and to identify significant issues that are inadequately covered by existing strategies. The final project will summarise the seminar conclusions. It will highlight the policies that clearly command widespread support as regional strategies. It will also identify areas for further development.

The report will be presented to a wide range of stakeholder groups and also to the region’s elected politicians.

We want to acknowledge the generous support for the Barker Mill Estate for this project. We are seeking organisations willing to host each of the five seminars.

Our researcher, James Dobson, started work on 22ndOctober on a five-month contract.

The project is being overseen by a steering committee with representatives from local government, business, Westminster and LEPs.

 

Prof John Denham, Director, Southern Policy Centre

denhamj@southernpolicycentre.co.uk

[1]Speaking at an SPC seminar in May 2017, Lord O’Neill said that the only proposal that was even considered by Ministers was that from Portsmouth-Southampton-IoW. The proposal has now been rejected by government.