Conference 2023

‘Ambitions for the central South’

Conference 2023

Over 150 participants and speakers came together at the SPC’s ‘Ambitions for the central South’ conference at Southampton Solent University. Quick fire panels explored sustainable economic growth, the importance of place shaping, health inequality and inclusion, and the possibility of local devolution, with speakers including university Vice Chancellors, business representatives, local government, voluntary and environmental organisations and health leaders. Recognition of the central South, a region with flexible boundaries but a core of the three waterfront cities, Hampshire, the Isle of Wight, east Dorset and West Sussex, continues to grow, with the branding used by businesses, universities and this year’s delegation to the MIPIM property investment conference.

The event demonstrated the region’s strength in its people, and its economic, social, cultural, and environmental assets, the strong practical experience of collaboration (for example around the Freeport bid and the response to covid), widely shared values of sustainability and inclusion, and many examples of good practice. The challenge is now to make the most of our potential. In part this depends on every organisation telling the regional story, not just the story of their place or organisation. And it means continuing to develop practical collaboration. The Southern Policy Centre’s own recent reports on Life Sciences, the Freeport, and Culture, and our work on the GreenPrint initiative have all helped to develop the central South story.

A further challenge, though, is to find the institutional arrangements that would enable our local authorities to draw down devolved powers from central government. The final session, chaired by Peter Henley of BBC South, with three local council leaders, heard a willingness to cooperate frustrated by the inflexibility of government. Most councils would clearly prefer to work together without having an elected mayor imposed over them, and some are disappointed by Whitehall’s refusal to allow Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole – a natural partner for Southampton and Portsmouth – to take part. These tensions only exacerbate the difficulties of finding arrangements that can accommodate all the region’s councils while recognising the differences between, for example, the largely urban Solent area and the more rural parts of Hampshire, its distinct northern economy and, of course, the Island.

These challenges do need to be resolved. If there is a change of government the focus will still be on devolution. The detailed rules may change, but cooperation between existing local councils will remain the building block.

Presentation slides from the event can be seen here.


The conference would not have taken place without the support of our generous sponsors Paris Smith, Abri, becg, Fawley Waterside, Drawnalism, Blake Morgan, The University of Southampton, Savills, Vail Williams, South Street Capital and Partnership for South Hampshire. We would also like to thank Solent University, Southampton for providing the venue free of charge.


The conference was structured around four thematic sessions focussing on regional economic strategy and devolution, Place, opportunities for growth, and poverty, disadvantage, levelling up and youth aspirations.

Regional economic strategy and devolution

The first themed session of the day began with an overview of regional strategy and devolution in the central South by SPC Director Prof John Denham.

Akash Paun, Senior Fellow at the Institute for Government think tank updated us on deals in other regions.

Prof Mark E. Smith, Vice Chancellor of the University of Southampton spoke about the Hampshire Story, a forward-looking view of what Hampshire could be as a place and its distinctiveness and ambition.

David Williams, Lead Chief Executive for the Partnership for South Hampshire outlined how local authorities around the Solent work together for a better future for South Hampshire.

Chris Ashman is the Isle of Wight Director of Regeneration looked at this first theme of the day from an Island perspective.

Place: Creative industries, cities and civic identity

SPC Director Dr Simon Eden introduced the second themed session of the day.

We were joined by Prof Patrick James from the University of Southampton who will speak about sustainable cities.

Dr Christelle Blunden from Southampton National Park City challenged us on how we see nature in the urban space.

Pippa Bostock, Director of Development, Engagement and Marketing at the Mary Rose Trust spoke about the importance of Creative industries and Place.

Dr Paul Spencer, Executive Director of Winchester BID examined the role of business in creating civic identity. 

Opportunities for Sustainable Growth

In our third themed session of the day, we were joined by Rachael Randall, Chair of Solent LEP who spoke about opportunities in the region.

Rachel was followed by Brian Johnson, Independent Chair of Solent Freeport who spoke about the opportunities that will emerge from achieving freeport status.

Dr Kam Pooni, the Royal Society Entrepreneur-in-Residence at the University of Southampton and CEO of Glyconics Ltd, made a presentation on one of the central South’s unsung stories: its strength in fostering and promoting the life sciences.

Ross McNally, Executive Chair of Hampshire Chamber of Commerce joined us to speak about business in the region.

Finally, Debbie Tann Chief Executive of Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust talked about sustainable growth.

Levelling Up and Wellbeing

SPC is proud of its work on disadvantage and levelling up and we’re delighted that Suki Sitaram, the author of our 2021 report on Levelling up: making the case for investment in the central South joined us to chair the session on levelling up and wellbeing.

Alex Whitfield, Chief Executive, Hampshire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust examined regional health and levelling up.

Sharon Collins from the Keep Well Collaborative will spoke about health, well-being and housing.

Finally, Tim Houghton, Chief Executive of Community First spoke about the importance of the voluntary, community and social enterprise sectors. 

Panel discussion

The day ended with a panel discussion with local elected leaders chaired by Peter Henley, BBC South Political Editor.

Leader of Southampton City Council, Cllr Satvir Kaur participated in the discussion along with Cllr Seán Woodward, Executive Leader of Fareham Borough Council and as Chair of PfSH. Cllr Steve Pitt, Cabinet member of Portsmouth City Council also joined the panel.

Peter Henley is a familiar face to TV news viewers in the south of England. He has worked as a reporter for Meridian Tonight and BBC South Today and has been a presenter of the Sunday morning Politics South on BBC1 for twenty years. He is married with three grown-up children and lives near Southampton.