Emails expose ‘fractious relationship’ between council leaders over Solent devolution

Donna Jones and Roy Perry Pictures: The News
Donna Jones and Roy Perry Pictures: The News

Solent Waspi holding coffee morning in Southsea

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SOME saw it as the golden ticket to a £900m windfall for the area – but some said it would break up the county of Hampshire.

And now the inside story of Solent Combined Authority devolution bid can be told as previously-unreleased emails reveal a fractious relationship between council leaders who had started out working together on a county-wide plan but had the taken different paths.

The emails, released under the Freedom of Information Act, show a testy correspondence between Hampshire County Council leader Roy Perry and the leaders of Portsmouth and Southampton city councils and Isle of Wight Council – Donna Jones, Simon Letts and Jonathan Bacon.

The councils started working together on a joint bid for devolution, including the whole county and the Isle of Wight.

Known as the Hampshire and Isle of Wight devolution deal, this was submitted to then Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne in 2015 but hit the buffers over plans for a directly-elected mayor. When this proved a sticking point, Southampton, Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight created the ‘Solent devolution agreement’, which was, at first, supported by all groups.

For 24 hours, all councils, including the county signed up to this deal. However, the county later backtracked.

This scheme was offered £30m a year for 30 years – the overall boost of £900m that was said could transform the south coast of Hampshire.

And the deal was very close to making George Osborne’s March 2016 budget, but at the 11th hour, was taken out – believed to be because of pressure from MPs.

In March, following a meeting with Greg Clark, Cllr Jones, Southampton’s leader Councillor Simon Letts and the Isle of Wight’s former leader Councillor Jonathan Bacon wrote to Cllr Perry stating their preference for the county council to be involved in the new proposal, which became the Solent Combined Authority (SCA). In a counter move, the county council launched its own consultation into exploring options for the county, such as the idea of greater powers for the council as a unitary authority on its own, stating it would save more than £40m a year.

An email from Cllr Jones to council leaders in south Hampshire said the county council would need to be on board for the SCA to progress and that if the district councils joined, it would mean the county losing transport powers.

It was at this time that councils in the north of Hampshire including Basingstoke and Dean, Hart, New Forest, Rushmoor, Test Valley and Winchester decided to push through a Heart of Hampshire Combined Authority for the region.

A further email from Cllr Jones, Cllr Letts and Cllr Bacon to Cllr Perry in May criticised the decision to commission the £89,000 Deloitte report and once again urged him to reconsider the SCA, saying the £900m deal is ‘over and above’ any financial efficiencies that could be secured by unitarisation.

It drew a fiery response from Cllr Perry, saying it would have been an ‘arguable failure of duty’ not to commission the report. He went on to criticise the councillors for questioning the spending on the report before deeming the £900m deal unreliable, stating it seems ‘inconceivable and ‘unsupportable’ and that there was ‘precious little devolution’ attached to it.’

However, Cllr Perry wrote to then-prime minister David Cameron in July, urging him to ‘avoid unnecessary instability to Hampshire’s economy’ and postpone agreeing any Solent devolution deal.

Cllr Perry said that the ‘previously healthy relations’ between councils over devolution had been placed under ‘intolerable strain’ and blamed the requirement for an elected mayor as the reason for the sole collapse of the previous HIOW proposal.

The deal was not announced by Mr Cameron before his resignation as a new climate for devolution talks opened up following the EU Referendum result.

Both Hampshire and the Solent council launched their own public consultations for their plans. The three Solent leaders wrote to Cllr Perry on July 26 calling for his assurances that the county would not consult on an option that would affect the two cities and the island.

Cllr Perry wrote back, addressing Cllr Jones, stating he was ‘disappointed in the tone’ and confirmed the county was only consulting Hampshire residents. He wrote: ‘We have no interest in interfering with the sovereignty of your own councils. We would be delighted if you could make the same commitment in return.’

In October 2016, the Solent Combined Authority deal was officially handed into government after all three councils in Portsmouth, Southampton and Isle of Wight gave it their backing, but once again the county council refused to join. Then came the rumoured death knell after a meeting in Westminster on January 25 this year between council leaders and MPs.

In March, Cllr Jones sent an e-mail to Cllr Perry after he questioned the effectiveness of the Partnership for Urban South Hampshire – a consortium of councils established to lobby the government for funding for the region.

Cllr Perry wrote in an e-mail to Eastleigh Borough Council’s leader Councillor Keith House – with Hampshire’s other council leaders copied in: ‘With regard to PUSH I know most of the direct membership is in favour, but the county council, having worked over years to support the arrangement, has had a more sanguine view about its genuine effectiveness.

‘PUSH sees its strategic planning work as its main activity, but has conspiciously failed, despite spending significant sums on consultants to agree on and produce an updated spatial strategy.’

It led to a response from Cllr Jones in which she defended the work of PUSH before mentioning the collapse of the SCA.

She said: ‘We were fortunate enough to secure an offer of £30m a year to improve our infrastructure and therefore improve the outcomes of every resident we represent. Sadly due to your actions, that £30m spending this year and next year and the year after has been lost.’

Cllr Jones said the impact of losing the deal would mean projects such as the new city centre road and the Solent Metro transport scheme would be delayed years.

She added: ‘Instead, I am doubtful that this will be completed within 10 years. What a terrible, sad indictment of our wonderful area.’