Concerns linger over Hampshire devolution

The Castle Winchester Headquarters of Hampshire County Council
The Castle Winchester Headquarters of Hampshire County Council
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Regional devolution would be bad news for the Portsmouth area, according to David Banks, a former political adviser and activist. He outlines 10 reasons why he believes local councillors must scrap their campaign for a combined authority across Portsmouth, Southampton and Hampshire.

The dust has barely settled after plans for a Solent Combined Authority were kicked out, yet the idea is already raising its head again. This time, the proposal includes all of Hampshire.

If the ‘Solent’ proposal was a bad idea, then a combined authority covering the whole of ceremonial Hampshire is even worse.

Imagine the Portsmouth area, which is already the biggest beneficiary of government funds in that geographical mass, having to suddenly compete with 14 other districts to maintain its funding.

That’s just one of 10 factors that we in the Portsmouth area should be worried about. Before exploring the other nine, let’s look at why regional devolution is being suggested.

It all comes down to the promise of more power. Local politicians believe they would be gaining more control of decisions that are currently made by government ministers – things such as housing, roads, policing and economic development that required regional strategy as they straddle local authority boundaries.

The government has already given these devolved powers to urban areas in the north of England, such as Greater Manchester last year.

Four other areas, including Sheffield and Liverpool, are also creating combined authorities with their neighbouring districts as they too have demanded region-wide solutions to government funding and the power to control the funds.

By contrast, the Hampshire region has a very different profile compared to these northern cities: no clear regional identity, more than one economic hub and no clear case that it has problems that are the same across the region in any of the policy areas that would be handed down. There has also been no grassroots demand for regional government – no-one is calling for a transfer of power apart from the people who would be receiving it.

A select group of ambitious local councillors would gain a bigger voice in the way government money is spent, but significant compromises would need to be made by the area’s individual towns and cities. In Manchester, Sheffield and the North East, arguments over structure and funding priorities have already begun.

These conflicts illustrate why we in Portsmouth/Hampshire need to ask ourselves several questions:

1 Does a Hampshire Combined Authority bring more control to local people?

No. Although the decisions are technically being made closer to home, a local council’s ‘control’ over decisions is actually a competitive dialogue with no fewer than 15 other council leaders in the funding areas that are being devolved. This would in many respects be worse than the current scenario in which decisions are made in the context of a direct dialogue with government.

2 Will the Hampshire Combined Authority bring additional funds?

No. Combined authorities simply administer existing funds that were previously spent in the same area by ministers.

In fact, the government is currently decreasing local government spending and wants to do more with less.

The only evidence of increased funding is where regional authorities have been able to access previously-allocated housing funds, which have not yet been spent.

3 Does the proposal enhance local democracy?

No. There are several reasons why it would conceivably have the opposite effect in Hampshire.

Firstly, a whole town can find itself outvoted on issues where it would usually have a controlling influence. For example, in the North East Combined Authority, a city council leader disagreed with the very first budget, but was outvoted.

Secondly, creating yet another tier of government would cause confusion for residents. Can the success or failure of a particular project be attributed to the district council, county council, sub-region or central government?

Thirdly, the Hampshire Combined Authority model would arguably give politicians decision-making powers in a locality where they have no democratic accountability, which is obviously open to abuse.

This is why the government insists that combined authorities must have an elected mayor, who holds ultimate accountability.

Councillors behind the Hampshire scheme don’t want an elected mayor as they have known since the early days of the Solent scheme that the idea of a regional leader would be deeply unpopular.

Fourthly, the combined authority is a significant distraction for local councillors who are already overburdened with paperwork and casework.

4 Will local councils retain the same independence, free from pressure from the combined authority?

No. Although individual councils would theoretically retain their existing decision-making powers, there is significant concern that their powers could become heavily influenced by the combined authority as a result of regional party affiliations.

Local councillors in a town that opposes a region-wide decision would feel an obligation to disregard local objections and maintain their party line.

Similarly, the combined authority’s superior financial clout could bring undue influence too. For example, a local council might decide to put funds towards building a new road instead of a community centre, just because the combined authority has a regional policy of match-funding the roads but not community centres.

Whatever powers are handed over to a combined authority, there is also a danger that a localised concern of an individual community becomes much less of a priority than the grand, strategic, macro-level schemes.

5 Are there strong reasons why the proposed boundary, bringing together Portsmouth, Southampton and Hampshire County Council, has been created?

No. It’s merely a poor compromise based on the original Solent City idea.

The boundary of the Solent City was proposed because the idea was being pushed by councillors who had a role in the Solent Local Enterprise Partnership and the Partnership for Urban South Hampshire, which have roughly the same boundaries.

In contrast to other devolved regions in the North of England, Hampshire doesn’t have a single business or transport hub (it has at least four) and it doesn’t have a shared economic or social identity.

Therefore it doesn’t require a single strategic transport plan for the whole region.

Councillors claim that Hampshire has common transport needs because it is linked by the M27 and M3, but this seems a weak reason, not least because those motorways will remain in the remit of the government and Highways England. Furthermore, any infrastructure or economic enhancement in one of Hampshire’s four main clusters would not necessarily provide a benefit to the other.

The reason this is a significant flaw in the Hampshire Combined Authority scheme is that being able to demonstrate collective added value across a whole region is one of the requirements of devolution.

In economic terms, would the area’s two principal cities, Portsmouth and Southampton, truly benefit from working together when their successful economies benefit from being independent, divergent and distinctive.

The proposed Hampshire Combined Authority area has divergent challenges and agendas.

If the combined authority’s advocates are aiming for collective added value, they might as well consider an alternative in which Portsmouth and its neighbouring towns – Fareham, Gosport and Havant – are recognised as a single organic entity.

This would make more sense as that area would represent a single cluster that has a shared history, shared services, a completely integrated local economy, indistinguishable transport needs and the strongest of social and cultural ties.

6 Do we know which powers will be handed to the Hampshire Combined Authority?

No. The range of powers proposed include: transport, planning, economic development and housing.

However, policing and health have also appeared on the list of joint objectives at one time or another.

There is even talk of the new authority being granted powers to raise tax and even issue debt bonds to fund infrastructure projects, as if central government tax and debt were not worrying enough.

In general, there is currently no clear indication about which specific policy areas the proposed authority would control.

7 Does the proposal enhance Portsmouth’s historic status?

No. Quite the opposite. If a HCA was created, Portsmouth’s status would change instantly.

Half of the chatter about Portsmouth in central government debates, the media and business would be replaced by talk about ‘Hampshire’, which holds higher level funding powers and is staffed by more senior councillors

Portsmouth City Council and the Portsmouth area would become subordinate to the Hampshire regional ‘brand’ and Portsmouth would be a mere ‘constituent city’ in important topics such as economic development, rather than standing on its own record.

It is inevitable that Portsmouth as a city and a brand would be diminished by that change – it would have as much right to fly its own flag on the national and international level as Copnor has today.

It’s not just Portsmouth’s ability to promote itself that would be diluted but also its distinctiveness, its reputation and the importance of its 1,500-year-old story.

8 Is there any guarantee the regional authority won’t be forced to have an elected mayor?

No. The government’s demand that elected mayors carry the responsibility for their decision- making actually makes sense in devolved cities where a regional approach solves problems.

9 If it goes wrong can we change our minds?

No. When the arguments start, the structure and powers of the regional authority will have been debated and approved by Parliament.

There’s no going back. An individual council would require another Act of Parliament to extricate itself and correct its original mistake.

It’s worth remembering that local government reorganisations happen about every generation and when it eventually comes, power is far more likely to flow towards the larger, more powerful super-city rather than back to its constituent parts.

10 Does the combined authority protect the green spaces between Portsmouth and Southampton from housing quotas?

No. Quite the opposite, once again. A combined authority makes housing development far easier.

At present, the government expects 83,000 houses to be built urgently in South Hampshire, the same size as Gosport.

Two new towns, or Strategic Development Areas, have been proposed near Fareham and Hedge End, but these have been subject to years of wrangling, despite only providing 1/5th of the houses required by the government.

In short, there is massive expectation and demand for the region to approve more housebuilding.

Local authorities know they will be forced to build and it will be very convenient for them if they can either blame the regional authority for housebuilding in their own district or even impose the homes on other less-developed districts nearby.

However, this is only half the story in regard to housing.

The latest studies have shown that the number of new homes that the government wants in south Hampshire is a woeful underestimation, as it is based on 2007 figures. Approximately five million new people came to live in the UK since 2007, while three million left.

The government wants regions to start to take their ‘fair’ share of the two million net increase in population. Populations of one million, or 1/64th of the UK population, are expected to be asked to build homes in numbers that at least match the proportion of the ongoing population rise, which means South Hampshire’s 83,000 current target of new homes can be expected to double to 160,000 within five years and 4,000 more homes each year thereafter.

David Banks is a former media adviser for the Conservative Party and was a Conservative activist in Portsmouth for 10 years. He studied at the University of Portsmouth after attending schools in Portsmouth.

He has also been a financial journalist and currently works in financial public relations.