Solent Deal or Done Deal, Round 2: Consultation or Propaganda?

S&C Co-editor, Oriana Bevan, reports on a day of questionable public ‘consultation’ on the new Solent deal, which proposes to add a new layer of local government across Portsmouth, Southampton and the IOW. Additional reporting by Sarah Cheverton.

On Wednesday 14th I attended a public consultation event on the Solent Deal in the chambers of Portsmouth City Council. Although an interesting experience it was, in my view, a far cry from Council Leader Donna Jones’ subsequent account of the event in mainstream local media, where she described the consultation as ‘…quite upbeat and positive. I don’t think anyone was against it, but they wanted to understand what’s going on.’

Instead of upbeat and positive engagement with local citizens, what I witnessed on the night was a mixture of unanswered questions and arguments between Donna and the public over the mechanics of a deal which seems to be more of a ‘done deal’ than it might first appear.

There were around 20 – 25 members of the public at the meeting, with Donna Jones and Chief Executive of Portsmouth City Council, David Williams, leading the consultation. There was a presentation on the Solent Deal lasting just over half an hour and then the floor was opened up to questions.

Coming into this debate as an outsider, I have to say that the presentation itself was not very informative, a fact reflected in the subsequent Q and A which lasted over an hour and a half. David Williams led the first half of the presentation and spent most of his time recounting the series of failed attempts to create a larger combined authority that led up to the current Solent Deal. The remainder of the presentation outlined some of the basics of the deal itself, including:

  • £900 million to invest over the next 30 years in ‘economic growth’
  • The member council will lose all central government funding grants provided under the previous system (the government plans to roll this out across all councils in any case, but it has been piloted in devolution deals in the north)
  • Instead of the previous central government funding grants, the council will retain 100% of local business rates to fund their service provision
  • The new combined authority will not replace the existing three councils in Portsmouth, Southampton and the IOW, but will be an additional layer of central government (cuts to each council would seem to be highly likely, however, to avoid duplication of provision across the two layers of local government)

The Q&A following the presentation was simultaneously the most interesting and infuriating part of the event. In stark contrast to the presentation, a series of determined and probing questions from the audience revealed far more detail about the specifics of the Solent devolution deal and how it will impact Portsmouth.

As outlined in previous coverage here on S&C, Donna confirmed that the new Elected Mayor of the combined authority will not be elected when the authority is created in 2017. Instead, an election would be most likely to take place in 2018/19, with the three council leaders taking turns to be Mayor in the meantime: Simon Letts (Southampton, Labour), Jonathan Bacon (Isle of Wight, Independent) and our very own Donna Jones (Portsmouth, Conservative).

Other details revealed in the Q and A include:

  • Structure of the combined authority would work like a local council cabinet with people having different portfolios.
  • The mayor will set a budget for how the business rates are set
  • Budgets can be vetoed by the cabinet of the combined authority
  • The mayor will most likely base their office where they live

More details on the structure of the authority are included in the Draft Scheme for the Solent Deal, available on the ‘consultation’ website – which presents an entirely uncritical perspective on devolution.

As the Q and A wore on frustrations grew, including it appeared for our Leader Donna Jones. It was not what you could call a harmonious meeting, and the Leader’s answers were often met with dissatisfaction from the audience. Overall, the event felt less like a consultation to elicit people’s opinions and more like a council propaganda exercise designed to win people over to a foregone conclusion – similar criticism has been made of the website supporting the consultation.

Addressing this point, the Leader was keen to stress that this consultation was about the ‘idea’ of the Solent Deal. Though this sounds reasonable at first hearing, the current timetable for rollout in 2017 – again, with no democratic elections planned until 2018/19 – combined with the complete absence of alternate viewpoints on devolution available as part of the ‘consultation’ makes the devolution deal appear to be a fait accompli even as local residents are being asked for their views. In addition, the lack of clarity in many of the Leader’s answers to quite straightforward questions around how the authority will work in practice made it seem like the proposal has not been thoroughly thought through. Throughout the entire public event the overwhelming feeling in the audience was confusion.

The whole process of the consultation seems to be as flawed as the deal itself.

During the Q&A, I asked Donna Jones how people would be kept informed of any updates in the devolution process as not many people seem to be aware of what is going on. The Leader raised an interesting and valid point: that it is hard to get local people interested in this sort of thing. Local resident Kimberly Barrett attended the discussion group (organised by the Council’s market research team and invitation only) preceding the public consultation event and stated on the Portsmouth Politics Facebook group that only 5 of the 15 people expected actually turned up.

The small audience at the public consultation event and focus group, the lack of critical coverage in mainstream local news, and an anecdotal survey of some of my own family and friends confirms the Leader’s view that it’s hard to get people interested in the Solent Deal.

However, one might speculate that a ‘consultation’ that appears to be anything but interested in attracting a diverse range of responses – including critical and opposing ones – hardly helps raise people’s interest.

A more cynical view might be that this lack of local interest could also work to the advantage of council leaders already in favour of devolution, or with their eyes on the golden chains of a regional Mayor’s office. The Leader’s view that a mandate for devolution will come in the form of the elections for the Mayor – once devolution has gone through – can’t possibly be said to be an endorsement of the deal.

Moreover, while Donna Jones is currently being quoted in the local paper hailing the main survey of the consultation as a success attracting over 2000 responses, given the population across the three authority areas is just under 600,000, this hardly seems to be an endorsement either.

Can this consultation process really be said to represent the people of Portsmouth, let alone Southampton and the Isle of Wight?

The main impression I gained from the consultation event is of a plan to create an arguably unnecessary additional layer of bureaucracy into local government in order to streamline investment into vital infrastructure for Portsmouth, Southampton and the Isle of Wight. Instead of creating an extra layer of government, why can’t councils receive adequate funding?

Instead, as of April 2016, the council has to find further savings of £31 million over 3 years, on top of the £74.4 million cuts they already made in the past 5 or so years (according to the Portsmouth Council website). Moreover the proposal seems to take more power out of the hands of local residents and their communities, rather than increase their access to and engagement with local decision-making.

Against a backdrop of the devolution that has already started in the north of England, the lack of critical voices available to the public in this consultation should raise significant concerns. Examples of regional devolution in the north provide our main guiding points for assessing the potential impact of Solent devolution. Yet the creation of what the government mooted as a ‘northern powerhouse’ is not without significant critics, including from its early champions.

Earlier this year, Oldham West and Royton MP, Jim McMahon (Labour) – one of the architects of the multi-billion-pound devolution deal in the north – expressed ‘deep unease’ over the rollout of the deal, suggesting “devolution as it stands does not empower communities.” Stating that devolution has created more of a “northern poorhouse” than a “northern powerhouse”, McMahon stated that devolution has failed to deliver on its stated intentions to bring more power to local areas because “[w]ithout a clear national framework for devolution, it is for the Chancellor himself to pick and choose who he deals with and what is offered”.

So my conclusion on the Solent Deal? It completely misses its expressed target of securing ‘Greater powers for South Hampshire and the Isle of Wight’, particularly if you believe those powers should be in the hands of the region’s electorate. But don’t take my word for it, go and look at the website for yourself. Like the public consultation event, the website can be confusing, but perhaps that was always the intention.

Image by Sarah Cheverton.