Year One at the Southern Policy Centre

Why a southern think tank?

We were launched in 2014 by Greg Clark and Lord Adonis to provide public policy focus for central southern England: the area from Dorset to West Sussex, and the Isle of Wight up to Oxfordshire.

The region faces challenges distinct from both London and other English regions. Our public spending per head is low, our landscape is very mixed and we have a fast ageing population.

Average incomes are above the national average but living costs are high. A fast growing population is the context for contentious issues like the need to develop more housing while maintaining sensitivity for the natural environment.

Economic development, though generally good, is uneven and constrained by shortages of skills, infrastructure and finance.


Our first major workstream is around devolution policy, working with groups like South East Strategic Leaders to shape a devolution deal that works for the south.

We brought Sir Richard Leese, Leader of Manchester City Council, down to Winchester Business School for a series of talks. Here are five lessons we can learn from Devo-Manc.

Our key piece of work looked at the challenges and opportunities for the major devolution bids in southern England, and interviewed important employers in the region to get their thoughts. Read the report on Devo-South here.

For a different perspective see our work on Citizens’ Assembly South, a project with university partners, YouGov and the Electoral Reform Society to better understand the views of non-specialists.


We launched our Open Data initiative in March this year (see the launch video here), becoming an Open Data Institute Node in May. See our ODI Hampshire mini site.

Since then we’ve applied open data principles to studying adult social care in the south, with a BBC South commissioned report showing a collapse in the number of residents receiving the service but alongside a fairly stable level of investment.

We’re also working on a Higher Education Funding Council project to understand areas with lower than expected levels of participation in university in southern England, and to then develop a toolkit that can be applied across the country.

Our latest event brought together open data specialists with policy makers in Hampshire. We showed that a bigger focus on data has already been used to drive improved decision making in public policy, but there’s still a long way to go. See our Storify for a round up of resources and discussion points.


Our already mentioned Assembly South project showed that ordinary residents can make a contribution to the devolution debate, but what about even more specialised and arguably more thorny policy problems?

We’ve recently held an event for local residents to discuss housing policy and hear from expert speakers (report out soon, watch this space!), but before that we held deliberative polling seminars on commissioning budgets and migration politics.

Apart from that, we had the pleasure of running an Arnie Graf Tour across southern England. The tour covered local authorities, the third sector and universities, and ranged from Southampton to Oxford. The kick off event in Winchester with Isabel Hardman and Danny Kruger was about community organising; what is it and does the sort of thing that Jeremy Corbyn inspires count?


We’ve worked on events with private organisations like KnowNow Information, Open Data Aha! and PWC, and universities including Southampton, Bournemouth, Solent, Winchester and Oxford.

Our institutional partners include the Open Data Institute and a cross party Advisory Board of many talents.

Our research projects have been supported by regional organisations like BBC South and Business South, and national bodies like HEFCE.

Plus we work closely with organisations ranging from Hampshire Hub to the Electoral Reform Society.

Want to work with us? Get in touch.

Perspectives on Devo-South

1. The bids so far and mapping out our challenges

Our most recent research report for Business South looked at the challenges and opportunities in central southern England – incorporating some great maps from OS – and analysed the bids so far as well as the government’s own proposals. This assessment was compared to the views of key business leaders in the region who we interviewed about their priorities for devolution.

See more here.

2. The citizens’ voice

Over October and November we were involved in a Democracy Matters project, holding a citizens’ assembly in the Solent area of Hampshire. Local citizens and councillors deliberated on devolution options for Hampshire and Isle of Wight.

  • Citizens at this ground-breaking initiative strongly endorsed the idea that any new devolved body should cover the Hampshire and the Isle of Wight area (rather than the SE 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
  • Participants were evenly split on whether they support the devolution proposal currently being negotiated with government
  • Citizens want far greater public involvement in Hampshire devolution deal being proposed, and pledge to stay involved in the process, in bid to ‘democratise devolution

See here for an overview.

3. Lessons from Manchester

We were privileged to host Sir Richard Leese, leader of Manchester City Council, at an event supported by PwC in Winchester. Sir Richard led a discussion on the Greater Manchester Combined Authority deal, and how they got there.

We’ve outlined five key lessons from the Devo-Manc experience here.

Devo-South: a report on devolution and business

What are the challenges facing southern England, how can devolution empower local leadership to tackle them, and what do business leaders make of the opportunities offered by the government’s decentralisation agenda?

Download the full report here

BUSINESS is backing the idea of devolution in the South and wants to have a say in what it could mean for the region, according to a major new report commissioned by Business South.

Business leaders across the south have taken part in the study conducted by the Southern Policy Centre – the think tank for southern England – and the findings have been released at the same time as crucial discussions this week between Hampshire and Isle of Wight with the Government.

The report:

  • backs the case for devolution to the south
  • urges the government to concede a fuller programme of fiscal devolution
  • argues that as an area of business rate surplus, the combined authorities should be able to take on more services in order to be freed from the need to contribute to other areas

Sally Thompson, CEO of Business South, said: “This is the first time the voice of business has been heard on the subject of devolution in the south.

“We welcome the findings  of the report and look forward to seeing a shared economic vision for the region being  developed by the proposed combined authorities and LEPS with business.”

The report highlights that many businesses do not feel well informed about devolution,  and have not been consulted. Many also feel that the capacity of current local authorities needs to be improved to take advantage of new powers.

And it underlines the desire from business for simple and speedy decision-making from new combined authorities.

John Denham, Chair of the Southern Policy Centre, said: “It’s clear the south’s local authorities, LEPs and other organisations have worked hard, against a demanding timetable to put their proposals to government.  Our analysis backs their ambition. We highlight some weaknesses in their plans – these are probably inevitable given the haste but they will need to be tackled in the months and years ahead. One of the top priorities must be to consult with business to ensure the simple, speedy, decision-making that local businesses would like to see.”

The report acknowledges how quickly authorities and partners have had to move but urges potential combined authorities to consult more quickly and deeply with business, and to ensure that the new combined authorities do provide the clear, simple and accountable leadership that is required.

More on devolution in southern England

Citizens Assembly: opening up devolution in the south

Solent citizens debate plans for Hampshire devolution, in UK’s first ‘Citizens’ Assembly’

But residents want devolution process to be opened up to the public

The Southern Policy Centre helped to organise the first assembly of ordinary residents in southern England to discuss devolution in their area.

The assembly pilot was concurrent with a partner assembly in Sheffield, South Yorkshire.

The results:

  • Citizens at this ground-breaking initiative strongly endorsed the idea that any new devolved body should cover the Hampshire and the Isle of Wight area, with integration of health and social care seen as the top priority
  • Participants were evenly split on whether they support the devolution proposal currently being negotiated with government
  • Citizens want far greater public involvement in Hampshire devolution deal being proposed, and pledge to stay involved in the process, in bid to ‘democratise devolution’

Over two weekends of discussion and voting, the nearly 30 participants – drawn from a broadly representative sample from Southampton, Portsmouth, the Isle of Wight and other parts of the Solent area in response to an invitation by polling company YouGov – reached their conclusions through a deep process of engagement with the details of different potential devolution arrangements. The Assembly was chaired by the BBC’s Peter Henley.

‘Assembly South’ was only the second such event in the world to include both citizens and politicians as participants in the process, after the Republic of Ireland. Five local councillors participated alongside the citizens for the four days.

The participants were given unique access to national and local experts to aid them in reaching their own conclusions on how Hampshire and the Isle of Wight should be governed. The project has been closely followed by local councils across the region.

Last weekend saw local politicians and other experts giving evidence to the Assembly, including Cllr Roy Perry, leader of Hampshire County Council. The project is being backed by Alan Whitehead, MP for Southampton Test, who attended the Assembly on Sunday and called it ‘really important and significant’.

The first weekend in October saw key local figures address the Assembly, including Councillor Stephen Godfrey, Leader of Winchester City Council, Steven Lugg, Chief Executive of the Hampshire Association of Local Councils, and Mike Smith, Director of Cities for Cofely UK and former Director of Finance for Southampton City Council.

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 the Solent.
  • Health and social care integration should be the most important priority for the body, followed by public transport, business support and housing investment

When asked to vote on the devolution deal currently on the table in negotiations with the government:

  • There was a dead heat, with participants evenly split on whether they would vote for or against the proposals.

The project, entitled Democracy Matters, has been organised by a group of leading universities, in conjunction with the Electoral Reform Society and the Southern Policy Centre, and has been funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

Hampshire and the Isle of Wight is one of two pilot areas taking part in the experiment, alongside Assembly North in Sheffield. Citizens in the parallel Assembly for the South Yorkshire region gathered on the weekend of the 7th November to reach their conclusions. The 31 participants similarly called for stronger powers for South Yorkshire, as well as a Yorkshire-wide elected Assembly and more democratic engagement in the process.

In related news, the Southern Policy Centre has this week published a report on how business leaders in the south view devolution and how the bids match up to the challenges for our region.

For more information visit

Southern Powerhouse: lessons to learn from Manchester

Sir Richard Leese, leader of Manchester City Council, joined the Southern Policy Centre and the Winchester Business School to discuss Manchester’s experience of devolution so far (‘Devo-Manc’).

The day was kindly supported by PwC.

Here are five important lessons that those building devolution deals in southern England can take from the Greater Manchester experience so far:

1. It takes time

Devolution is a process built on talking and planning between equal partners. It requires a unified political voice asking for powers based on a credible prospectus, which in turn requires Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Independent leaders to have strong relationships between each other.

The situation in southern England is accelerated. That ground work hasn’t been done in the same way as Manchester where they’ve been working on the process for many years. So leaders will be thinking about what work they need to do after the initial deal with government is struck, and how trusting relationships can be maintained across their region.

2. Connecting economic and social policy is key

No major policy challenges fit neatly into one policy box. Sir Richard focused on the issue of worklessness, which is one of the key factors behind the productivity gap between Manchester and other parts of England.

Much of it is caused by health problems, and devolution will actually enable that challenge to be dealt with across sectors. Not just by the NHS, not just by a local council, not just by the DWP. You can use strategic leadership, drawing on the knowledge of professionals and politicians in all these organisations, and you can pool funding/resources to tackle problems at root.

3. Devolution works best bottom up

The Manchester experience has been ‘bottom up’ in two key ways. Business voices have called, loud and clear, for devolution around skills policy. Amplifying these voices has been integral to Manchester’s case. And the whole of the Devo-Manc deal was drafted collaboratively between elected leaders. The Treasury didn’t impose the Northern Powerhouse, it was designed by Manchester’s architects.

But it hasn’t been perfect. One regret from Manchester was that they haven’t involved ordinary citizens enough in the design. The most effective devolution bids will carry forward the priorities and aspirations of whole communities.

4. It’s cross-party or no party

This has applied both locally and nationally in Manchester. The Greater Manchester Combined Authority includes Conservative-led Trafford and Liberal Democrat-led Stockport.

But the story that isn’t often told is how important continuity between the Labour and then the Coalition government was in 2010. The last couple of years of the Labour government in particular showed real progress in creating a Manchester ‘City Region’, and the coalition’s choice – made, apparently, on the lobbying of the Conservative and Lib Dem leaders in Manchester – to carry that work forward rather than scrap it and build their own scheme stopped devolution progress from being set back by years.

Devolution bids in the south – from Hampshire and the Isle of Wight to the Three Counties prospectus between Surrey, East Sussex, and West Sussex – are all built on cross-party coalitions, but that has to hold up in sustained negotiations and partnership working throughout times of electoral change.

5. Equality has to be protected

So much of this is built on trust between local partners. Protections for political minorities as well as unequal areas (ie district councils compared to unitary authorities) have to be built in from the start, so that the political leadership in these areas don’t feel like they’re being set up to be taken over by their bigger partners.

Further notes from Manchester:

  1. Business rates: a great opportunity, especially for southern authorities, but inequalities exist and councils will need to lobby the government to devolve business rates at a combined authority (rather than council) level so that a local system of redistribution is an option.
  2. Health: health organisations in Manchester and beyond fear being taken over, an anxiety that can destabilise the whole process if efforts aren’t made from the start to build in joint working and decision making.
  3. Education: Greater Manchester has only made tiny progress on education, this is an area where government policy doesn’t align with local authorities who want more oversight of schools.
  4. Confidence: local government is the most confident it has been for a long time. They won’t just be turned away at the door anymore, and the devolution genie won’t be allowed to go back into the bottle.


Supported by PwC.

Sir Richard Leese on the Devo-Manc experience

A Southern Powerhouse?

That’s the issue that Sir Richard Leese, leader of Manchester City Council and key player in the ‘Devo Manc’ deal, will be addressing for us at the University of Winchester Business School.

Sir Richard will be well placed to give an insight into the negotiation of the devolution agreement, Manchester’s role in the ‘northern powerhouse’ and how the combined authorities intend to use their new powers.

John Denham, Chair of the SPC, will chair the event.

Wednesday 21 October

10.30am for a 11am start, ending at 12.30 with a buffet lunch.

Winchester Business School, West Downs Campus, SO22 5HT


Why not a ‘Southern Powerhouse’? Presentation at Business South

We’ve all heard about plans to give new powers to local authorities in Greater Manchester and other major metropolitan areas in northern England. George Osborne has set out his vision of a ‘northern powerhouse’ but there is real potential for this region too.

On the 3rd July John Denham, Chair of the SPC Advisory Board, laid out our work on devolution policy for Business South.

Read the speech here and see the slides below:

Download the slides

Greg Clark, devolution, challenges and opportunities

This blog piece was originally published on the 24th June on the Platform 10 campaigning blog. Although Platform 10 aligns itself with the Conservative Party, the Southern Policy Centre is non-party political. 

Greg Clark has engineered a powerful decentralising bill that will provide the cities, towns and counties of England and Wales with the chance to take on the big domestic challenges of our time. How creative and effective will each area be in meeting those challenges?

Five years after he was first appointed Minister Greg Clark has arrived back at DCLG, this time as Secretary of State, no less convinced of the need for decentralisation to unlock all of our nation’s talents. This time round he has the heavyweight backing of George Osborne. He has a talented team of officials in his own department, among the most able of whom chose to work there especially because of the government’s decentralising ambitions and Clark’s tenacious and principled commitment to a fresh approach. The opportunity to complete a fundamental paradigm shift in English politics, economic development and governance now stands before him and the rest of the Cabinet. What is next?

The House of Lords is currently discussing Clark’s new Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill. The bill – fast out the door – is radical. It gives the Secretary of State the power to devolve any public function to a combined authority. It begins to create the framework of legislation that will enable localities of every town, county or city to come forward with compelling ‘asks’ to the centre. They will be able to take power and resources back to their area and so address pressing needs as only they know best.

Devo-Manchester is but the first step in a much wider revolution soon to be followed by a major county and some Northern cities. What is missing thus far is a flagship ‘ask’ from a combined authority in the South – although the recent news that Hampshire, Portsmouth, Southampton and the Isle of Wight may be in the running as a single area (as big as Wales’ economy, they argue) may trigger a competition. Kent and Sussex are no less ambitious.

Some local leaders of course would like the bill to have the flexibility for unitary authorities or counties to come forward on their own. That is understandable. Sitting behind the whole question is where local government resources will flow after the comprehensive spending review. West Cheshire, for example, saved £300 million when it washed away its district councils some years ago. Some in London judge such an option a likely outcome of the coming five years. Businesses and local leaders will be scouring Greg Clark’s upcoming speech at the Local Government Association for early signs of his direction of travel.

Those who have admired Clark’s work thus far will already have a sense of the intensity of his consensual radicalism combined with a meticulous attention to detail. Advised by Lord Heseltine, his tenure will not be characterised by grand narratives and pages of guidance but tough negotiations intended to push those who are up for the challenge further and faster.

There remains though the question of teasing out how the decentralisation revolution will most helpfully support and empower the most vulnerable members of our society. This is not a task confined to Clark’s department but will form an acid test against which the government will in future be judged: The Department of Work and Pensions has been slower in signing up to the agenda than some other departments. The Home Office more flexible. Acute provision for children with severe mental ill health is overly-concentrated on London but very expensive to replicate at local level, while excellence in cancer care is no less simple to provide at local scale.

With sums as large as £6 billion arriving in Manchester are there – or can there be invented – charities and social enterprises large enough and dynamic enough to ensure that the most flexible and focused of responses to need are driven forward? Will the thousands of carers in Greater Manchester gain a voice or representative on the board overseeing health as the implementation of the Care Act meets its first winter later this year?

And what of the wider question of social care and health integration? Our research in the South suggests the quality and quantity of support for frail elderly or learning disabled Britons is as much determined by the courage and creativity of local leaders as it is by the volume of resource they have to bring to the task.

Amidst the decentralising headlines is rapidly emerging a real need to track the specifics of the local implementation plans that various areas adopt. Locality will matter. This provides new challenges to corporates, journalists, academics, faith groups and other civic voices as prone to be obsessed with London as Whitehall can be with itself. .

Ultimately, Greg Clark has put before us a far reaching piece of legislation that will impact all. The key question that remains is this: how far will local leaders succeed in addressing these complex social issues, and rising to the opportunities now before them , including those I have outlined above, in a way that fits their local challenges?

In many regards these questions reach beyond party, not least as a key feature of Greg Clark’s strategy is to work with the Northern Cities first. The Northern Powerhouse will become a new anchor by which, as one local authority leader termed it, a ‘one nation powerhouse’ is restored. There is no turning back.

Professor Francis Davis tweets @FrancisTDavis