Council leaders behind the Solent devolution bid have expressed frustration at the government delay in deciding on a “desperately needed” deal, after communities secretary Sajid Javid admitted his department had been slow in taking decisions.
Southampton and Portsmouth city councils and Isle of Wight Council submitted a bid to create a combined authority with a mayor last autumn, following negotiations with the Treasury and Department of Communities & Local Government. The two city councils are separated by Fareham and Gosport BCs which will be invited to become non-voting members of the combined authority, along with Hampshire CC and the county’s six other districts.
Hampshire has actively opposed the Solent deal, arguing there should be a deal for the whole county area but without an elected mayor..
A deal would involve investment fund of £900m over 30 years for economic growth, infrastructure and housing.
It would also see councils retain 100% of business rates, generating an estimated income for the combined authority of £210m a year.
Addressing the County Councils Network conference last week, Mr Javid said the Solent bid had “been there for a long time” and added that “we should have by now got back to them.”
Portsmouth leader Donna Jones (Con) said she had written to Mr Javid in the last two weeks to request a meeting “as soon as possible” to discuss the deal.
She said the area was “losing out” because of the government delay in announcing a decision on the bid, which had been backed by resolutions passed by the three councils involved.
Cllr Jones added that, of the deals that were yet to be agreed, the Solent proposal is the most “progressed” and the only area ready to create a mayoral combined authority.
She added: “The Solent area desperately needs a combined authority.
“The north/south divide is a highly misleading over-simplification. We have seen over £1bn ring-fenced for the northern powerhouse through the recent budget and many other investments within the mayoral combined authority areas.
“I’m hopeful that in 2018 we will secure the support of the government to deliver a combined authority in the south of England to mirror what the government has delivered in the north.”
Southampton leader Simon Letts (Lab) told LGC he believed the delay was caused by the opposition of Hampshire CC and several of the county’s Conservative MPs to the proposal.
He said: “The budget allocated money to other devolved areas and now the Solent area has missed out because [Hampshire and MPs] decided not to endorse an elected mayor.
“It is immensely disappointing… The needs of the south are being completely ignored. We have a one million population, which is bigger than the Tees Valley and roughly in line with Bristol and Bath, and we have a strong case.”
Cllr Letts added that Hampshire politicians want to preserve an “ancient” county boundary “which doesn’t make sense in economic terms”.
He confirmed leaders of the councils involved in the bid are due to meet next week to decide on what can be done to make progress on the deal.
Hampshire leader Roy Perry (Con) said the council’s position on the Solent bid had not changed as a combined authority for the whole county and the Isle of Wight represented the “best deal”.
He added: “We do not support any proposals that would divide or could lead to the division of the county of Hampshire, as the county council is one of the most effective and successful local authorities in the country.
“As well as being deeply concerned for the integrity of Hampshire as a whole, and the risk of disruption to the efficient and effective delivery of services, we were and remain deeply unconvinced by the financial and economic arguments in favour of the so-called Solent deal.”
Cllr Perry added that a county-wide deal would provide the “right scale and scope” to make a combined authority effective and splitting the area could “compromise” economic success.