John Denham, Speaker at Realizing the Potential of the Wider South East technical symposium organised by L&WSE Strategic Planning Network.

The symposium aims to facilitate a conversation between strategic thinkers on opportunities for collective research and collaboration, in particular the scope for adopting a wider and longer-term perspective and by joining up current sub-regional economic, planning and infrastructure initiatives.

For more information and to watch the video of the event click here.

Realising the Economic Potential of the Wider South East

Southern Policy Centre’s director, John Denham spoke in a seminar on October 25th 2019 about exploring the economic potential of the the wider South East.

The event was organised and run by the London & Wider South East strategic planning network and Arup. It as supported by the Southern Policy Centre, Centre for London, and Design South East. Read the key messages below:


Civic Universities and the central South

Dr Simon Eden

There is a lively discussion about the role our universities have in the towns and cities they are part of. As local authorities and other public bodies are forced to cut back, so institutions like universities become more important in civic life. At the same time, Ministers have cautioned against “universities becoming disconnected from the wider world… [and] …seen as distant from their communities” (Sam Gyimah, Universities Minister, September 2018).

Universities are of course educators, but they’re also employers and partners in local cultural life. They can help build thriving communities. February’s report by the Civic Universities Commission (CUC) “Truly Civic: Strengthening the connection between universities and their places” is another prompt to us to think about the role of universities in securing economic, social and environmental regeneration of their towns and cities.

The University of Portsmouth and the Southern Policy Centre wanted to understand how universities in the central South had responded to the challenge of becoming ‘civic universities’. We invited Lord Bob Kerslake, Chair of the CUC, to discuss the Commission’s ideas with senior university, council and LEP leaders from the region. This is SPC’s view of the discussion that ensued.

Lord Kerslake began by reflecting on the history of universities in Sheffield. He had spent ten years as Chief Executive of Sheffield City Council and worked closely with the University of Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam University. Both had deep local roots, with their origins in the city’s community. Both had played a role in the regeneration of the city in the late ‘90s. This story was repeated in cities across England.

Recent national policy had driven the marketisation of higher education and altered the focus of universities. That risks a diminution of their connection with their home town or city. But, in Lord Kerslake’s view, as HE policy is evolving rapidly that link is becoming more important. Universities need their communities to act as advocates: to say how important a thriving HE sector is for the success of the place.

As they went around the country the CUC found lots of civic pride in local universities. There were lots of good examples of collaboration. What they felt was missing was a strategic approach, creating a narrative for the role the university played in shaping their place. Such a narrative should be place-specific: what mattered in Sheffield would be different from the role the University of Southampton or Solent University played in their city.

The CUC had proposed the relationship be captured in a Civic University Agreement, unique to the place. These Agreements must be bottom up, central prescription would miss the point. They must add value to local relationships. They should not be seen as an obligation but an opportunity. One of Commissioners had captured the spirit exactly when they said their aim was to “get people talking about our university, not the university”.

Participants acknowledged the pride that cities and towns felt in their universities. There were good examples of our universities supporting a wide range of local initiatives. Places which did not host an HE institution were keen to see a university presence in their areas, to help boost aspirations and achievement, and support economic regeneration. There were opportunities to work together to improve access. One participant encouraged universities to draw on the knowledge and skills in local education authorities to help reach all parts of the community. It was generally agreed that the central South’s universities have a key role to play in improving the chances of the “left behind” in our communities.

However, high-level strategy should not be at the expense of addressing more immediate challenges. A local authority participant suggested some sections of our communities were less convinced of the benefit a university brings. They only experience a negative side to universities: the pressure students place on the local rented housing market or the problem of noise or parking. We should not lose sight of these concerns as we try to build a positive civic role. As one participant put it, it pays to focus on the small stuff.

The discussion also touched on the complex geography and politics of the area, with a mix of two-tier and unitary councils, and complicated LEP boundaries. Given the complexities of our administrative geography and the interdependence of our different communities, there is no simple set of one-to-one relationships between universities and local communities. But the fact that our universities reach across administrative boundaries is a potential strength. There is an exciting opportunity to collaborate across institutions and sectors in building our shared future.

One participant ask how far that civic role should extend: for example, should a university take an active role in encouraging the re-use of former student housing to meet local need? The answer, participants agreed, depends on the institutions – councils and universities – involved. What works in one city may be less important or effective in another. However, participants agreed that universities needed to take responsibility for their wider impact on the community, and contribute actively to civic life, rather than simply adopt a reactive, even slightly defensive approach.

All agree our universities are a key part of the wider narrative of the central South and our distinctive identity. And there is a clear appetite for developing our shared understanding of the civic role of our universities. Several are working towards Civic University Agreements to try to capture local opportunities and impacts. In doing so, they should share ideas and approaches, and perhaps use Agreements as an opportunity to build wider partnerships. 

The discussion was a rare opportunity for councils and universities from across the central South to come together. We should seize the opportunity to continue that dialogue, particularly amongst our HE institutions. We can all gain when all the universities in the central South work together and learn from each other’s experience – whether on Civic University Agreements or other shared interests.

Living Well Seminar

The SPC and University of Winchester held their second joint seminar on public health and wellbeing in March 2019. The event follows on from the seminar we held in 2018 on our ageing society, and explored how we can prepare for a better quality of life in later years. Our speakers looked at diet, exercise and mental health. An audience of over 150 took part in a lively discussion afterwards


Help us to move on!

Our report for the Blagrave Trust outlining practical policy recommendations to address some of the issues facing young people in Hampshire, Portsmouth and Southampton can be read below.

Hope4Housing Film: This is a short film made by young people in Hampshire which sets out some of the issues facing them in housing, and how they would like to see local politicians and policy-makers start to address them.

LEPs and the central South: a summary of our breakfast seminar in conjunction with PwC

Since their establishment in 2010, Local Enterprise Partnerships have been integral to economic growth across England, providing a channel for government investment in infrastructure, skills and innovation. A joint Southern Policy Centre/PwC seminar held at the beginning of December exploredhow our local LEPs see their future role and discussed how they can help fulfil the needs of the Central South of England.

Julian Gray of PwC opened the discussion by suggesting that the urban South Coast was a great place to live, but that it underperformed economically. The session’s Chair, John Denham, reminded us that LEPs are big spenders, but that their activities were ‘under the radar’ for many, and they needed to be accountable to business and local communities.

John reflected on the suggestion of Lord Jim O’Neill, former Treasury minister, at a recent Southern Policy Centre seminar that the central South lacked ‘a distinctive, “stand-out” proposal which built on unique local strengths and offered …. a clear sense of local identity and place’.

Gary Jeffries, Chair of Solent LEP, saw a compelling vision of the central South coast as a ‘world class coastal economy’, building on our existing strengths. He suggested that a strong component of that vision should be the marine and maritime economies, but without neglecting other strengths in medicine, space technology and the wider knowledge economy.

Gary noted the proposed changes to LEP boundaries (now approved by ministers) which would see the New Forest area become part of Solent LEP. The parts of Test Valley, Winchester and East Hampshire districts which were currently part of Solent LEP would join the rest of their district in EM3. This would strengthen Solent’s coastal focus.

The LEP want to shape a distinctive local industrial strategy which builds on what we do well, and provides an investment plan which will support the growth of these sectors and of our economy, tackling infrastructure under investment and low productivity.

Alastair Welch, director of ABP’s Southampton port, highlighted the significance of the port in the UK’s global trade. Southampton was not ‘the end of the line’ but a ‘gateway to the world’. We should lobby hard for the investment to help us maintain this pre-eminence, which has many wider benefits for the central South’s economy.

We should be ‘thinking big’ and ensuring we invest in what is already excellent in our local economy to maintain our world-leading status. That will ensure we send a message about the success of our local economy, rather than a gloomy assessment of weaknesses. They could only be addressed, Alastair suggested, by building on our local strengths.

Presentations concluded with an assessment from Zoe Green from PwC of what would make a good local industrial strategy. Zoe’s experience with the national pilot on these strategies made clear that government ministers wanted to see investment in areas and sectors which can unlock local, regional and national growth. The best strategies would be ambitious and offer a distinctive vision for a place – highlighting its brand, assets, talent and even ‘liveability’.

A good strategy would also be based on robust partnerships between the public and private sector, which allowed the area to explore new ways of working. In Zoe’s view, collaboration across boundaries was vital to realising the vision for what the central South can be. That transcends organisational boundaries and presents a picture of how partners can deliver change at a scale which will have real economic impacts. In some areas, neighbouring LEPs in the pilot programme had taken a more strategic overview of their local industrial strategies, making a persuasive case for investment by highlighting shared aspirations and ambitions.

The discussion that followed these presentations echoed the need for an ambitious vision that businesses could get behind. One speaker endorsed the need for our area speaking with a coherent collective voice, and the need to avoid being parochial. Others spoke about our shared identity and the many things that bind us together.

Many of the businesses present were keen to get behind an ambitious vision for our future, and there was some discussion about the process for developing local industrial strategies, including the timetable – with Zoe pointing out that Government’s aim was to have all in place by early 2020.

The LEPs are already building the evidence base for their strategies, and will want to involve local businesses and communities in shaping their vision. Attendees at our seminar reflected the enthusiasm for that collaborative approach, and the desire for an ambitious, positive statement about what the central South can achieve.

SPC and PwC hope to arrange further events as our local industrial strategies progress. We look forward to working with our LEPs and businesses to help shape our shared future.

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

[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.

LEPs and the central South – join us for our seminar with PwC

Since their establishment in 2010, Local Enterprise Partnerships have been integral to economic growth across England. In July this year the Government sought to strengthen their role, making proposals designed to ensure they are fit for purpose. Join us for our free seminar, organised in conjunction with PwC, which offers an opportunity to learn how our local LEPs see their future role and discuss how they can help fulfil the needs of the Central South of England.

Date: Monday December 3rd. 8.30am – 10.30am

Venue: PwC, 3 Ocean Way, Southampton. SO14 3TJ

The full event flyer can be seen here: SPC:PWC LEP seminar flyer


Collaborative Culture: the challenges for cultural partnerships in the central south

Our area has a rich arts and cultural offer, with a wide variety of organisations and strong levels of public engagement.  Our report, undertaken on behalf of Arts Council England and with support from the Partnership for Urban South Hampshire (PUSH), examines the collaborative arrangements which exist to facilitate joint working between arts and cultural organisations in Dorset, Hampshire and the Central South coastal unitary councils.

To read the report, click here: SPC Collaborative Culture Report Revise October 2018 – WEB VERSION