Central South Urged to Unite by Southern Policy Centre by Daily Echo on September 23rd 2019
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 email@example.com.
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.
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.
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.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
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.
Simon Eden, SPC Associate, on how the South needs to re-imagine its approach to devolution:
Devolution across the UK has proceeded in fits and starts. Some councils and their partners embraced the process early, and came out with devolution deals which delivered financial support, greater autonomy and, in some cases, new powers. Others came late, and got stuck in a ‘traffic jam’ of bids which sat on Ministers’ desks. The Brexit referendum, a change of Prime Minister and then the General Election in June 2017 brought everything pretty much to a halt. The process has yet to restart in earnest.
Many potential partners who bid to become Combined Authorities are in limbo, not knowing whether ministers will look favourably on their ideas or not. As Government says nothing, so alliances fall apart, with councils voting against working in a Combined Authority with near neighbours. Legal challenges seem to have more impact on who works with whom than does economic geography.
Devolution in the central South of England has stalled. Promising partnerships have collapsed. Government has said nothing in response to the bids they received from once enthusiastic councils, LEPs and businesses. No one is clear what will happen next, if anything. In May of this year the Southern Policy Centre held a conference to explore why devolution for the central South has stalled, and how we could re-start that debate.
Our keynote speaker was Lord Jim O’Neill, former Treasury Minister who, along with former Chancellor George Osborne, was the architect of the Cameron Government’s approach to devolution. Both O’Neill and Osborne had a very clear vision for devolution: their aim was to re-balance a national economy which they perceived to be dominated by London and the South East. They wanted to stimulate local economies by devolving political power, decision-making and accountability to cities and city regions.
Successful devolution deals have been struck with some of our great northern cities, and with areas as far apart as Bristol and Peterborough. But central southern England has missed out. The businesses, universities and councils attending our conference shared a sense of frustration at the lack of a devolution deal or deals in our area. A lack of progress meant our communities are not seeing the benefit of the extra investment in infrastructure, skills and housing such deals bring.
So what went wrong for the central South? Lord O’Neill was very clear that the best bids he saw offered a distinctive, ‘stand-out’ proposal which built on unique local strengths and offered Ministers a clear economic payback. The worst appeared to be no more than requests for additional money. Perhaps none of our proposals were exciting enough for ministers – or perhaps they failed to capture what’s unique about us?
We were told that only one of our bids, for the Solent area, got as far as being considered by ministers, and that it subsequently failed because of opposition from some local MPs. Perhaps we also fell foul of ministers’ focus on conurbations, with no thought-out policy for the more typical mix of cities, towns and rural communities making up much of the UK. But nor did we help ourselves, with discussions about devolution in the central South so readily becoming about ‘form’: who sits on the Combined Authority, who chairs, who has what votes? The political and administrative geography of our area is complex, and not everyone could agree on the make-up of proposed Combined Authorities. Many saw an elected Mayor as a threat to local councils’ authority.
Councils are understandably wary about renewing that seemingly fruitless debate. But businesses, universities and others at the Southern Policy Centre’s conference recognised that the case for devolution remains strong. By allowing decisions to be made and resources allocated at a local level we stand the best chance of addressing the problems faced by deprived communities, of targeting capital investment to where it will have the greatest impact, and of re-growing a strong economy by building on local strengths and opportunities.
But that case needs to be made once again, and this time, framed in a different way. While devolution is about a constitutional argument about where power should lie, there is also a far more pragmatic argument, making the case for devolution as a vehicle for solving local problems – from delivering improved housing supply to stimulating economic growth. There is every indication that ministers see devolution in that pragmatic, functional way. Maybe we need to re-cast the case we make to reflect this new mood.
So perhaps we should restart the devolution debate in the central South from a different place. Maybe we should move away from politically-led debates about governance, voting rights and representation, and begin by looking at with how greater local control can deliver more jobs, better housing, and better life-chances for people. For their part, ministers should articulate a more attractive ‘offer’ for those willing to overcome the institutional and political barriers to co-operation.
It’s sad to say, but it appears that Whitehall doesn’t trust local councils and local communities. So we need to prove we can work together: councils with one another, with businesses, universities and many others. There is nothing more powerful for Ministers than a demonstration that something works; it puts you on the front foot when it comes to making the case for seceding control.
If the old arguments have fallen on ministerial deaf ears, then perhaps this sort of ‘bottom up’ case for devolution will have more of an impact. Businesses, universities and others working alongside local authorities as equals may be able to make a better, more persuasive case than we did in the past.
This report records the issues and ideas discussed at the Southern Policy Centre’s Devo South conference and suggests how matters might be moved forward.
Hampshire businesses have had their say in what they want to see from local government and from any devolution deal done with central government:
Hampshire businesses want to see a single, simple to engage with local authority, with a more ‘can-do’ approach to business.
There is overwhelming support for the devolution of more powers and resources from central government and for a more strategic and integrated approach to economic development, infrastructure, housing, transport and planning. These are two of the headline conclusions of a survey of business attitudes towards local government and devolution undertaken by the Southern Policy Centre for Hampshire County Council. There was no clear consensus on the most appropriate geography for single local government structures. Businesses tended to identify distinct economies and characters of the north and south of Hampshire (including the cities and the Isle of Wight), although there was some support for a ‘single county’ approach. Business also wanted to see better links between the cities and their hinterlands. While there was little support for the current two-tier structure, businesses recognised that large authorities would still need localised democratic decision-makng structures. The interest of small businesses needed to be protected in any change to large authorities. Businesses generally enjoyed a positive relationship with local authorities although concern was expressed that some councils were losing key business facing officer expertise as a result of spending cuts. The biggest frustration was the inconsistent policy approaches of different local authorities, while there was a perception that within local authorities economic development and planning were often badly coordinated. The majority of businesses support elected mayors, though they stressed the need for strategic leaders rather than personality-based candidates. The report was based on nearly 50 one-to-one interviews with business leaders and six focus groups covering different sectors of the economy and different parts of Hampshire. The report sets out a number of guiding principles that should be taken into account in any future decision-making:
- Business would welcome single-tier authorities, but there was no clear consensus over their size and geography. Any proposals should set out how they relate to recognized economic areas. The key choice would appear to be between a binary structure, based on the southern urban area and the north and more rural parts of the county, and a single ‘county, cities and Isle of Wight’ structure
- The need for a strategic approach on development and infrastructure favours larger authorities. Any proposals for larger authorities should set out how local democratic decision-making can be retained on appropriate issues
- Businesses were concerned about the loss of capacity and expertise amongst officer teams in some smaller local authorities. Any proposals for reform should show how sufficient capacity and expertise would be retained and strengthened, and care should be taken not to seek cost savings at the expense of the quality of business engagement with local government
- Any proposals for larger authorities should show how the interests of small businesses in local decision-making and as suppliers would be protected
- The retention of business rates can potentially strengthen the relationship between local government and business, but business rates themselves were widely seen as unfair. Local government must plan now to ensure it is far more accountable to its business rate payers once this change is implemented
- Devolution presents a genuine opportunity to grasp the nettle and become significantly better at planning and delivering transformational infrastructure projects. Any proposals for change must show how a new local authority structure will be able to exercise powers that are now (or in the future may become) available in an efficient, effective and democratic way
- Any proposals for change must be sensitive to the wider uncertainties affecting business, including potential changes to business rates and the UK’s exit from the EU. Any reorganisation of local government and/or devolution deal needs to be executed as quickly, cleanly and clearly as possible, across an economic geography that ‘makes sense’
- A majority of businesses would support an elected mayor, and there do not seem to be substantial business objections to the creation of such a post
Assembly South was part of an important new experiment in how to organise democracy effectively. It consisted of a group of 23 citizens and 6 councillors from the Solent and Isle of Wight area who met in Southampton over two weekends in October and November 2015 to discuss the future of local governance. The aim was to select the citizens randomly to be broadly representative of the local adult population. During the two weekends, they learned about the different options, consulted with advocates of a range of views, deliberated on what they had heard, and formed recommendations.
Assembly South was one of two citizens’ assembly pilots organised by Democracy Matters, a collaboration of university researchers and civil society organisations supported by the Economic and Social Research Council. The second pilot assembly, Assembly North, ran over the same period in Sheffield and has produced its own report.
The main aims were:
- To assess whether the creation of citizens’ assemblies could improve the operation of democracy in the UK and to build knowledge on how such assemblies might best be run;
- To investigate what members of the public in England think about devolution when they are given the opportunity to learn about and debate the issue in depth.
Participants voted that if there were to be a new devolved body:
- It should cover the Hampshire and the Isle of Wight area, instead of other options like the South East or Solent
- Health and social care integration should be the most important priority for the body, followed by public transport, business support and housing investment
- There was a dead heat on the question of whether participants would vote for or against the current deal on the table
A key finding of the research team is that randomly selected citizens are ready, willing and able to engage with complex policy and governance debates when given appropriate support and opportunity.
This report sets out the background to the creation of Assembly South. It describes the Assembly in terms of its composition and working methods. It then presents a detailed outline of the Assembly’s discussions and recommendations. It concludes by briefly reflecting on lessons learned and next steps.