Councils in and around Portsmouth are looking to unitary reorganisation to salvage something from the wreckage of the Solent Combined Authority bid.
The move could involve Portsmouth City Council, which is already a unitary, and neighbouring Fareham, Gosport and Havant BCs.
A devolution deal for the Solent, made up of unitaries Portsmouth, Southampton City council and Isle of Wight Council, had first been expected in last year’s budget and then the autumn statement. While ministers had indicated a devolution package was on offer, though only with an elected mayor, it has not yet materialised.
The proposals have been opposed by Hampshire CC as it sees a Solent combined authority as a threat to its position. The county is wary of districts joining the body once it has been formed.
Districts were ditched from discussions last July as the county would not cede its highways and transport powers in their areas to the combined authority.
But Isle of Wight has now abandoned the Solent bid following a change of political control from Island Independent to Conservative.
Fareham leader Sean Woodward (Con) told LGC: “I don’t want to lose all that’s good in the financial package and devolved powers if the government decides not to proceed because Hampshire County Council’s opposition puts it in the ‘too difficult’ box.
“If we had a unitary reorganisation of the councils around Portsmouth, that could be done without an elected mayor - which has been the elephant in the room.
“Unitary reorganisation is another route to getting devolution. If we have to go into that territory, which I would never previously have contemplated, that is better than losing the devolution offer.”
Cllr Woodward said the proposed council would have a 500,000 population and so would easily meet government criteria for new unitaries.
Portsmouth’s leader Donna Jones (Con) said: “Our application for a Solent Combined Authority is with government and we’re waiting for it to be determined. If it is not successful we would then consider alternative options for greater devolution to achieve better outcomes for the people we represent.”
Havant’s leader Michael Cheshire (Con) said the combined authority bid looked “dead in the water” and so “we will look at other options of which unitary reorganisation is one”.
Reorganisation around Portsmouth would omit Southampton and Eastleigh BC, both part of the original devolution bid.
The situation is further complicated by the largely rural Test Valley BC, East Hampshire DC and Winchester City Council all having southern tips that run into the Solent conurbation.
Eastleigh’s leader Keith House (Lib Dem) said: “There has never been any suggestion that Eastleigh would join a ‘Greater Portsmouth’. Eastleigh has no plans to discuss unitary arrangements with anyone.”
Hampshire’s leader Roy Perry (Con) said any ‘Greater Portsmouth’ unitary would be “an expensive exercise of destroying one of the most successful county councils in exchange for a very doubtful future”.
He said: “It intrigues me that some district councils appear to believe they can unilaterally determine the governance outcomes for their locality while only being responsible for around 20% of local government in that locality. The county is responsible for the other 80% and should surely have a proportionate say.
“Some district council leaders may think they could sustain these services but where is their evidence for that assumption?”