City council leaders have met to kick-start talks on creating a combined authority covering southern Hampshire and the area’s two city unitary councils.
Portsmouth City Council leader Donna Jones (Con) and Southampton City Council leader Simon Letts (Lab) issued a brief joint statement that said: “Southampton and Portsmouth city councils are very supportive of the opportunity that a combined authority offers the economic development and prosperity of the Solent area.
“We will engage in a dialogue with our neighbouring councils, the Solent Local Enterprise Partnership, the local MPs and central government to establish the scope of what can be achieved.”
Cllr Jones later elaborated on this in a statement, which said: “This is not about merging cities, it is about neighbouring areas working closely together to get the best for the region.
“Transport, business and regeneration are the areas which would benefit, this would not affect local issues.
“Each borough and county would still be responsible for their own area, but we’d be able to work better on wider strategic plans.
“This doesn’t mean we’d have a say over what happens in other towns and cities, and likewise Portsmouth will still remain completely independent.”
The two councils, and those covering the adjacent area, are already part of a long-established economic development body Partnership for Urban South Hampshire (PUSH).
Any attempt to create a combined authority would be complicated by this including parts, but not all, of several districts (see box).
The issue is also complicated by Hampshire CC’s hostility to a combined authority covering less than the whole county.
Hampshire leader Roy Perry (Con) told LGC: “Put simply, we consider the two cities are thinking on a too small and even parochial scale.
“If the government is to devolve extra powers they would hardly do so to a unit that would be smaller even than the county council.”
He said PUSH “came together many years ago for quite different reasons, largely housing and district planning and doesn’t even cover the travel- to-work areas.”
Cllr Perry said Cabinet Office minister Greg Clark told a meeting in Winchester last week a combined authority would need the scale of Hampshire, the two cities, and the adjacent counties of Isle of Wight, Surrey and West Sussex.
A Cabinet Office spokesman told LGC Mr Clark had simply indicated that geographical scale would be an issue with any combined authority proposal, but had announced a preferred minimum size.
PUSH chair Sean Woodward (Con), leader of Fareham BC, told LGC: “The Solent area is 1.25 million people and capable of being a combined authority.
“It did not come together over housing but because it is a natural economic area and as such it has bits of some districts in it.”
Cllr Woodward (Con) said a meeting on 2 December was due to discuss what additional powers the councils wanted to see devolved.
He said a possible alternative to a combined authority would be an economic property board covering the PUSH area.
“Southampton and Portsmouth are not [adjacent] and my understanding is you have to be under the legislation to form a combined authority, so a combined authority could have to have the whole of Hampshire in it,” he said.
“It’s right the PUSH leaders look at what could be devolved, and that could be to an economic prosperity board or a combined authority. My understanding is a board would allow PUSH to keep its current structure under current legislation.”
Meanwhile, Southampton councillors have rejected moving to an elected mayor, reducing the number of councillors and changing their election cycle.
Voters opposed moving to an elected mayor in a public consultation, but supported a change to a four-yearly all-out election cycle in which the number of councillors would be cut from 48 to 32.
Member councils entirely within PUSH boundary
Isle of Wight Council
Portsmouth City Council
Southampton City Council
Member councils partially within PUSH boundary
East Hampshire DC
New Forest DC
Test Valley BC
Winchester City Council