Shelagh Simmons questions the ‘consultation’ process for the proposed Solent Combined Authority, which would see Portsmouth, Southampton and the Isle of Wight local governance transformed, potentially under the leadership of an elected mayor. Additional reporting by Sarah Cheverton.
On 22nd July, an online consultation began to canvas residents’ views on a Solent Combined Authority (SCA) encompassing Portsmouth, Southampton and the Isle of Wight. The proposal would make sweeping changes to the way local government works, possibly resulting in an SCA headed by an Elected Mayor. It is claimed it would mean more devolved powers and funding for the region. The consultation is due to end on 18th September after which the Secretary of State may simply pass legislation enabling the appointment of an acting mayor ahead of elections next year.
The summer is traditionally a quiet time in politics, with Parliament in recess. But it’s not just a quiet time for politics. It’s the time when schools break up and thoughts turn to family holidays, rest and relaxation. Indeed, it’s a time when spin doctors might think it opportune to ‘bury bad news’ or ‘consult’ on policies that national and local politicians might favour but which might attract awkward questions from the pesky public.
Thus the ‘Solent Deal’ descended over the summer, complete with a series of Drop Ins, shiny leaflets extolling the virtues of Solent Devolution and a consultation questionnaire arguably designed with a preferred outcome in mind.
The local press have stayed conspicuously quiet on the implications of the Solent Deal for local democracy, concentrating instead on telling us how much money could come our way and the various projects on which it could be spent. These stories are all clearly designed to get us on board but they are purely speculative. Nothing is guaranteed. As always, the devil will be in the detail and detail is what we don’t have.
What detail we do have in the draft plans for the SCA raise some alarm bells for local democracy, even if the complete absence of a mandate to change local governance doesn’t. For example, how will the SCA be held to account by its regional population – totalling almost 600,000 across all three local authorities?
An Overview and Scrutiny Committee will call the new authority to account: made up of members of the SCA, who will have the ‘power’ to invite leaders to meetings, ask them questions, write reports on their answers and then ask them to reconsider their decisions.
Under the current plans, if residents aren’t entirely happy with the planned arrangements, they can complete the consultation survey on the website, although it’s unclear how exactly their feedback will be taken into account if it doesn’t support the three local authorities currently pushing the deal through. That decision goes to the Secretary State, who will consider the results of the consultation and make a final decision on the SCA.
The consultation launch saw the three council leaders – Jonathan Bacon (Independent, IOW), Donna Jones (Conservative, Portsmouth) and Simon Letts (Labour, Southampton) – sitting in an uncomfortable row. Flanked by her aspiring SCA buddies, Donna Jones characteristically did most of the talking. And as if the body language wasn’t awkward enough, when the BBC got the IOW’s Jonathan Bacon on his own to ask if he trusted the other two the question had to be put twice. It was excruciating to watch as he finally squirmed out a hesitant “yes”.
It seems various council permutations have been considered for the SCA before settling on the current coalition of the willing. Eastleigh was first mooted to join with Portsmouth and Southampton in a plan Romsey and Southampton North Tory MP, Caroline Nokes, described as “back of a fag packet accounting”. It seems Eastleigh was replaced by the IOW – a Council, like so many others, already in financial crisis.
Another complication is the disagreement between the latest SCA combo and the leader of Hampshire County Council, Tory Roy Perry. Incidentally, Caroline Nokes MP – of the “back of the fag packet accounting” quote – is his daughter. HCC has reportedly spent £150,000 of taxpayers’ money on a report by Deloitte, which was fashioned into the county’s own consultation ending on 20th September. One option is for a single authority to cover the whole county, which Councillor Perry claims could cut council tax for up to 90% of residents and save at least £40 million annually. Such an authority had already been mooted but shelved because some of the boroughs/districts didn’t like it. Some have, however, expressed interest in being part of the SCA.
Councillor Perry stated on publication of the Deloitte report, “I will not be endorsing the current Solent and Heart of Hampshire proposals unless and until the people of Hampshire tell me that is what they want.”
Potential SCA members, including Portsmouth, have rubbished the Deloitte report. Portsmouth Liberal Democrat Councillor Matthew Winnington says it amounts to a tantrum by the leader of HCC. He describes the report and consultation as “a complete sham” which is “part of their desperate attempt to torpedo the combined authority because it’s not Hampshire wide”.
At first glance, the devolution deal has turned into a power grabbing war, with extremely damaging open conflict between the county and local authorities. It isn’t just the business as usual of party politics but has those within the same party at each other’s throats too.
So what’s the bottom line in all this opinion-slinging and pro-devolution propaganda?
The central point is that we don’t know if this plan for devolution would be good for our area because the Solent Deal spin machine has gone into overdrive. Where are the facts? The potential pitfalls as well as the positives? The leaflets or Flagship article through every door? Inclusion in the debate of the disabled and those without internet access? The public meetings with panel discussions representing those against as well as for? The consultation with staff, whose jobs will be affected?
Solent Deal promoters tell us that “key stakeholders” were engaged before drafting the consultation document. A glaring omission was the most key stakeholders of all – us. Discussions I have had with other local people reveal a shocking lack of awareness about this proposal. A recent television item on That’s Solent discovered that very few members of the public interviewed had even heard of the SCA, let alone what it would mean for them. Yet it could be in place by March 2017 with an (unelected) interim Mayor, with Mayoral elections currently mooted for 2018 (although PM Theresa May recently stated that an elected mayor would not be required for devolution deals).
But most importantly of all, where is our chance to vote yes or no to a combined authority? Admittedly, the shenanigans of the EU debate have given referendums a bad name but that’s no reason to shut democracy down. It’s no reason to deny us a voice. And to those who point to the cost of such a process, are we really saying democracy is a luxury we can’t afford? But a new combined Council sitting alongside what’s left of the existing councils post-devolution makes perfect economic sense?
Southsea resident Blair Breton certainly doesn’t think so. He’s started two petitions (one to Parliament, and one to the three councils, Portsmouth, Southampton and IOW) calling for exactly that – a referendum on whether or not we want a Solent Combined Authority. In the petitions, he states:
“This consultation started during the busy summer holiday period when many people are away or otherwise occupied…[and] unfairly prevents many people from fully participating in this key issue including those without access to the internet who have not been told where to obtain hard copies. It imposes barriers on those disabled.
“I believe such major changes should not merely be consulted upon. A hard copy of the consultation could have been posted to each household alongside the council’s own communications direct to residents. The proposals must be subject to proper scrutiny before being put to the people of all three authorities. A referendum should then decide whether or not they want a Solent Combined Authoritity…There should be public meetings across the region at which elected representatives and local government officers from all the authorities are present to explain their position and answer questions.”
And Mr Breton is not the only one calling for a more meaningful mechanism for people to provide a mandate for devolution – if this is really what local residents want.
Devolution Fever has spread to Dorset too, where a petition has begun on the back of similar concerns.
The Inform Fareham residents’ group complains that “our local councils seem completely unprepared to actually come and discuss with us, the electorate, just what devolution would ACTUALLY MEAN”.
In our area, the IOW Council has promised a referendum to its residents. Why can’t we have one here? And what happens if other councils want to join? Will residents of those areas have a say? Will we?
Blair Breton says anyone who believes in true democracy should support his petitions. I agree. Any decision of this kind must be for the people, and not just for politicians with their own agendas.
And regardless of your opinion on the combined authority, we really shouldn’t have to plead for our democratic right to decide how we’re governed – should we?
Find out more and get involved
The official website of the Solent Deal – An uncritical take on devolution and home to a ‘consultation’ survey – Portsmouth City Council, Southampton City Council, IOW Council and Solent Local Enterprise Partnership (a partnership between major regional businesses and councils in the region)
Petition to Parliament calling on all three local authorities to undertake referendums – Portsmouth resident Blair Breton
Petition to Portsmouth City, Southampton City, and IOW Councils to undertake a referendum on the Solent Deal – Portsmouth resident Blair Breton
IOW Executive vote to support Solent Deal – On the Wight
Resistance to Solent Deal from IOW’s Councillor Lumley – On the Wight
Deloitte report on options for Solent devolution – Hampshire County Council