At the moment there is much debate in Council chambers and in the national press about Combined Authorities. Greater Manchester who were the first UK combined authority has long had additional powers but recently has taken on responsibility for the NHS (and other services) in the area. Time will tell if this improves service with direct control or if it places this vital service at risk. Closer to home there is strong interest in a Combined Authority on the south coast which could, if it were to go ahead, bring more powers and control to develop this economic region. This is very appealing, depending on what they are and how any new authority is structured.
At this point it is clear that a Combined Authority could have significant positive implications for Southampton, Fareham, Portsmouth, Gosport and other authorities which are wholly inside the Solent LEP region, but for the 4 district Councils (EHDC, Winchester, Test Valley, New Forrest) who are part in but have their main economic areas and majority of the population outside of the Combined Authority there will be pros and cons on how this might pan out. There is a rule that a City, Borough or District Council must be fully in or out of the combined authority. Each of the 4 District Councils is in two separate economic areas which makes inclusion in a Combined Authority such as a Solent based region difficult as it would drag the rest of the District into the Combined Authority preventing us from seeking options with partners to the North. You can not be in two different combined authorities unless someone changes the rules.
The South Downs National Park is a key piece of geography here too. The park status where new housing and business growth is restricted means we have a housing pressure from the North and a better economic fit with the Councils to our south. Personally though I am very concerned about how this synergy could result in 20 years time with an increased pressure for housing as Portsmouth and other large built up areas run out of space to accommodate their own needs. In East Hants we have just completed our joint core strategy and allocations plan, and know what we need to take us to 2028. We will be very sensitive to the remotest suggestion we might need to take on any other authorities housing problem. Clearly we need to be at the table to protect our interests, explore the options and if they will benefit us then look to make them work.
This is a very large and complex topic where the rules are emerging and the progress of any discussions will inevitably be affected by any election outcome on the 7th May where a different government may well have different views on what should be allowed. For example, Ed Milliband has spoken out against his own Labour led Councils in Greater Manchester taking on direct control of NHS services locally. All bets are off on what might be allowed in May whatever the political makeup.
None the less it is a very current topic and we need to assess the opportunities and possible benefits. As such the 11 local Councils along with Hampshire County Council who comprise PUSH (Partnership For Urban South Hampshire) have met (Friday 27th February 2015) to be briefed on what the options might be, and how this might be followed up.
To present this clearly and introduce some facts I have broken this down into the following subjects:
What region might a combined authority cover?
How might this affect current council structures?
What new powers or controls might we get?
What is currently happening?
What region might a Combined Authority cover?
First off there needs to be a sensible region. A strategic area that functions economically and socially. The PUSH (Partnership for Urban South Hampshire) or Solent LEP (Solent Local Enterprise Partnership) region encompasses the 1.3 million residents and the 50,000 business that operate in the region. The built up area is bound by the South Downs National Park to the North and at the East and West, the ends of the business and commercial activity. It is a clear strategic region (below in dark green).
There are also strong views that a Hampshire wide Combined Authority would make more sense and allow the new powers to be integrated better into current council boundaries.
At this point it is essential to stress that there are NO plans for any Combined Authority, and that the next several months represent information gathering and considering options with any decisions being after the general election when the government of the day has made its position clear on what can be done. The best option to protect our semi rural identity may well to not be in one at all.
A Combined Authority needs to have enough population and economy to make the devolution of power from Whitehall worth handing over. It makes no sense to allow a change of powers if this then costs more to implement. The Greater Manchester population is 2.7 Million in comparison to the 1.3 Million in the PUSH / Solent LEP region. This makes a Solent LEP sized Combined Authority ‘A little on the small side’ but workable depending on the powers it might get or want.
There is also no reason why a Combined Authority could not go across County boarders so we should also explore opportunities with adjacent areas, for example Chichester.
How might this affect current Council Structures?
The 11 local Councils in PUSH (EHDC, Havant, Portsmouth, Fareham, Winchester, Test Valley, New Forrest, IOW, Eastleigh, Gosport and Southampton) are all clear that the current democratic structure and identity is of paramount importance, and there is no desire to merge councils into larger organisations with new political structures. We all wish to retain our current powers, boundaries, identity and statutory responsibilities as they are and any Combined Authority status would need to be independent of this.
Hampshire County Council though is in a difficult position where a Solent Combined Authority might see a level of service provision in one part of the County that does not exist in the other. This could affect the structure of the County Council itself. Hampshire County Council’s view is that a Hampshire wide Combined Authority is the best option (if at all) and it is important that we properly explore this. I fully agree and while we explore what might be viable we should consider options that include No change, part of Hampshire, All of Hampshire or even look outside of the county to adjacent areas where we have good synergies.
What new powers might we get?
This is still being developed and recent consultation by central government is still being considered. Really though it is up to us as a region to put forward proposals by considering what we feel we can do better than central government. Some of the possible options are as follows:
Local control over responsibility for business support budgets.
Reshape and restructure further education provision.
Implement regional specific programmes to improve employment.
Work with Clinical Commissioning Groups to integrate health and social care.
Control of transport budgets and franchised bus services.
Development of a single strategic spatial plan which draws together housing, business growth and infrastructure.
Control of the housing investment fund
Undertake PCC role
None of these are on the list by coincidence, this is the way Greater Manchester have opted to take their region forward and these devolved powers are transferring to the GMCA – the new Greater Manchester Combined Authority. Other examples for us might include the control over the release and subsequent reuse of Government land or control over business rates. With former MOD land in the Solent region coming free clearly we can make better decisions with local people than central government can.
What is currently happening?
Hampshire County Council have consulted all of the member Councils and EHDC have responded that:
“EHDC has a long track record of partnership agreements, joint service agreements and would welcome discussions with the other Councils in Hampshire including County, District (or equivalent) and Parish to better understand what might be a way forward that delivers better value to our residents”
PUSH / Solent LEP have met and discussed a possible Solent based Combined Authority that mirrored its economic region and this generated a consensus that there were opportunities to explore and the Chief Executives of the Councils would meet to look at what devolved powers would better serve our communities and how they might be structured.
The Leaders of the local Councils attended a summit on devolution and combined authorities. The Leaders agreed that a combined authority may be a way of achieving greater devolution to local communities and the local authorities will work together to develop options. A combined authority could deliver devolved power and funding from Whitehall on issues such as skills, transport and economic development.
Whatever does happen any decisions that affect East Hampshire will need to be based on the best interests of our community and over the next 6 to 12 months we will be participating fully to see if any of these options could achieve this. As a Cabinet member in the Southern Parishes, I represent EHDC at PUSH and Solent LEP meetings. Any comments or thoughts on the blog for or against will be welcomed to help get views but expect this to be a topic that comes back a few more times.