Businesses must 'sing as one' as bid to set up Southern Powerhouse to boost trade begins

An aerial view of Portsmouth with the Mountbatten Centre in view. Picture: Portsmouth City Council
An aerial view of Portsmouth with the Mountbatten Centre in view. Picture: Portsmouth City Council
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Rivalry has fuelled passionate debates – and bitter feuds. But could ditching a competitive attitude and copying the Northern Powerhouse idea bring in a new era of prosperity for our city?

That’s the argument of Business South, which aims to bring companies together.

Robin Shepherd, partner at planning and design consultancy Barton Willmore, which works across the south coast.

Robin Shepherd, partner at planning and design consultancy Barton Willmore, which works across the south coast.

For years the Partnership for South Hampshire, Solent Local Enterprise Partnership, and Solent Transport have brought councils and organisations together working on planning, business and transport respectively.

But Robin Shepherd, from Business South, said working together like the Northern Powerhouse – an economic proposal by the coalition government in 2014 – could bring in major benefits.

Mr Shepherd, from Hampshire-based consultancy Barton Willmore, said the ‘Central South’ – covering Bournemouth to Portsmouth and up to Winchester – should ‘sing as one’.

He said: ‘The Central South is a fantastic place to live, work and do business. It’s a wonderful, often beautiful, diverse collection of cities and towns, set alongside a thriving marine environment and national parks that contributes an incredible £119bn to the UK economy.

‘In short, the Central South has a lot to sing about – but perhaps in the past it hasn’t really had to sing about it all that much. Investment has flowed relatively freely and compared to areas in the north of the country, the region historically hasn’t had to fight much for its share.

‘Now, that is changing. The Northern Powerhouse is increasingly staking its claim on the public purse, austerity has taken its toll and the great unknowns of Brexit are yet to be clearly identified.

‘In the past, there has been a tendency for each part of the region – and in particular the cities of Portsmouth, Southampton and Bournemouth – to sing their own song rather than taking a more holistic view of the region. 

‘It was like a TV talent show – lots of talented individuals performing to their best ability, often impressively, but in competition with each other.

‘Happily, after much hard work and through the work of organisations such as Business South, businesses, local authorities, major economic players such as the Port and key commercial operators in the defence, maritime and aerospace sectors are starting to sing as one. 

‘The recent Regenerate South conference, held in Winchester, crystallised that mindset and set out a road map for communicating the region’s benefits and opportunities with a single voice.

‘The focus is now on shining as a collective, collaborative unit rather than competing against each other – placing the Central South on the world stage.

‘Now, perhaps for the first time in many years, the Central South is sounding less like a cacophony and more like a choir – individuals, certainly, but more effective when they sing together as one.’

It comes after The News revealed on Monday a 7,000 jobs bid by Portsmouth City Council as it sets out its economic development strategy up to 2036.

That document will be used by the Solent LEP in drawing up an industrial strategy for the Solent area.

Working together is nothing new. But it hasn’t always been easy. An attempt by councils in the region to bring in £900m through devolution with the Solent Combined Authority hit the buffers.

The move would have seen councils join together to form a super authority, with extra powers.

Leader of Portsmouth City Council, Councillor Gerald Vernon-Jackson, said devolution is ‘at the moment completely dead’.

But he said authorities and organisations are already working well together.

He said: ‘The councils in the Solent area have worked together very closely for a long time, and I think we’ve got three effective organisations that do stuff.

‘PUSH, that does work around planning, effectively our planning arm. Solent Transport who does the transport, and the Solent LEP that does the economic development.

‘We’re very lucky having those three organisations that we’re able to work with to say we have a single voice for the area because of the work we do very closely.’

But Mr Shepherd said organisations in the area should be looking northwards for inspiration.

He said: ‘The Northern Powerhouse has proven that a region-wide approach to economic development can really work. Yes, more than six years after its launch, it still has a long way to go to achieve its stated goals – but there are clear successes.

‘Not least among them is Transport for the North, which saw no fewer than 19 local transport authorities work together to produce a Strategic Transport Plan.

‘Now imagine a similar exercise bearing fruit in the south, with the potential to transform connectivity between cities – a truly integrated approach knitting together public transport, the roads network including the much-maligned A34, and travel by sea, air and bicycle. 

‘An environment attractive to live in, work and play, where cycling and walking through pleasant parks and streets is the norm not the exception – after all, the climate and topography are in our favour.

‘The links between the business community and the public sector are particularly strong in the north – a relationship that has sometimes been taken for granted in the south and one which is vitally important to nurture. 

‘We need to reconnect, think together, and think big.

‘We must generate innovative and challenging proposals for regeneration, gain support for key economic developments and promote them clearly and consistently. 

‘We must sing the praises of development sites at a national and international level, work together to secure new employment, grants and opportunities and recognise and celebrate the benefits and opportunities “good” growth can bring.

‘More events such as Regen South, more open conversations around the region’s strengths and weaknesses and greater collaboration will only benefit us all.’