Realising the economic potential of the wider South East – technical symposium

John Denham, SPC Director, is speaking to a seminar exploring the economic potential of the the wider South East. The event takes place in London on 25 October, and is organised by Arup.

The combined economies of the former South East and East regions represent over 20% of the nation’s GVA. They also contain eight of its highest performing towns. Yet these areas are often perceived as the commuting hinterlands of London, rather than economic engines in their own right. Sub-regional economic, planning and transport initiatives are making a positive return in several parts of the Wider South East.

Professor Denham will talk about the central South and its relationship to London. To find out more about the event and register your interest go to


Is there a strategy for the central South? Conference to launch SPC’s research report

On 20 September SPC will introduce their research on whether the variety of plans and strategies published by councils and LEPs across the central South together present a clear narrative about our ambitions for the future. Evidence from across England suggests that those areas which consistently tell a clear, simple story about their shared ambitions and priorities win additional support from Government, and have a more powerful voice in securing public and private investment.

The Conference, to be held at Careys Manor Hotel in Brockenhurst, will hear our conclusions from research first discussed at a series of seminars earlier this year. We’ll also hear responses from councils, LEPs, universities and other key organisations from across the central South. A briefing paper which gives more details about our research can be downloaded here.

To find out more about the Conference e-mail

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.

Is there a strategy for the central south?


Three seminars are being held as part of the Regional Strategy Project to focus on the various challenges facing the central south.

We would like to thank Barker Mill Estates, Build Environment Communications Group (BECG), Blake Morgan, Hampshire County Council and Carey’s Manor for their support.

The project’s conclusions will be presented to a conference at Carey’s Manor, Brockenhurst, on September 20th. For invitation requests please email us here.

The following documents are working documents to stimulate discussion. We welcome clarifications, corrections, and comments. Please email us here if you have any.

Seminar One: The Economic Challenge

The analysis in the paper below draws on documents published by the LEPs and top-tier local authorities. It looks at the economic opportunities and challenges facing the central south, and for both explicit evidence of shared and joint working and of implied shared priorities and perspectives.

Seminar 2: ‘Spaces for Business, spaces for people’

This paper provides a summary of research on strategies prepared by local authorities and other bodies. Its focus is on planning, housing and sustainability.

Seminar 3: Critical infrastructure, critical capacities

The analysis here draws on documents published by the LEPs and top-tier local authorities. It looks at the economic opportunities and challenges facing the study area, and for both explicit evidence of shared and joint working and of implied shared priorities and perspectives.

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.

Home, here or London?

Retaining graduates from the central South’s universities.

Both authors frequently hear the refrain ‘we must retain more of our graduates’ at meetings and seminars on the local economy.This report, commissioned by Willmott Dixon, explores the retention of graduates from the central South’s universities in our economy and examines the challenges the region faces in recruiting and retaining these graduates.

Graduates are a valuable resource to the economy.They bring new skills, fresh perspectives and a willingness to question established approaches.1 The government sees the UK’s universities as central to the delivery of its industrial strategy, in part because they will provide the skilled professionals needed for a changing economy.

Living Well: Health and wellbeing for a better quality of life

In March 2018 the University of Winchester and Southern Policy Centre hosted a seminar on health and social care, exploring the challenges facing the Central South as we strive to meet the pressures demographic changes put on our health and social services.

The growing number of older people is in no small measure due to the medical and social progress we have made in recent years. Yet, whilst many can look forward to longer lives, they may also face more complex medical conditions and physical challenges as they age. One of our speakers last March, Lord Geoffrey Filkin from the Centre for Ageing Better, put is very simply: longer lives are a great opportunity, but what will make those extra years good? That is the question our seminar addresses

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.