Cllr Chris Whitehouse is Education Spokesman for the Conservative Group on the Isle of Wight Council, Chairman of The Whitehouse Consultancy.
The Governmental push for devolution of additional powers to local and sub-regional government has led to a bizarre development on the South Coast where it is now being proposed that the cities of Portsmouth and Southampton create a Solent Combined Authority along with the Isle of Wight; and that they try and pinch a few district councils off Hampshire whilst they’re at it.
The proposal has already been out to what can only be described as a most premature and deeply flawed consultation which simply failed to engage the attention of the local electorates who frankly were unclear what this was all about. If they had read the consultation material, they wouldn’t be much wiser, since it was at best shallow and at worst inconsistent, inaccurate and misleading.
First, let’s look at the engagement level. A grand total of 2,531 responses (mainly online) were received from the entire populations of Southampton, Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight. This is a fraction of 1 per cent of the population and is absolutely no basis for reaching conclusions of enduring and fundamental importance to the future structure of local government in our area and, indeed, for the future position of the Isle of Wight as a self-defining community.
On the Island, the situation has been exacerbated by the failure of the lack-lustre “Independent” Leader of the Council, Jonathan Bacon, to give any real leadership in this process, to fail clearly to identify his objectives and his strategies for achieving them. Indeed, he told the Full Council meeting in July that discussions were still at an early stage, with no firm proposals and much work still to do.
Within days the entire consultation was in full swing, with full page propaganda advertisements in our local media, and a real push being undertaken to bounce our community into accepting the proposed semi-merger with Southampton and Portsmouth to avoid the same sort of economic and public service provision Armageddon with which the “Remain” campaign threatened the electorate in the run up to the EU Referendum.
Had the Isle of Wight Council Leader really been so marginal to the discussions with Portsmouth and Southampton that he really did not realise the documentation, including the governance proposals, was almost finalized and the consultation imminent, or was Full Council misled?
Secondly, the consultation was flawed. A devastating correspondence has been ongoing behind the scenes between, on the one hand, the Chief Executive of Hampshire County Council, the impressive John Coughlan CBE, and its Leader, Cllr Roy Perry; and on the other hand the Chief Executives and Leaders of Portsmouth, Southampton and the Isle of Wight. The Leader of the Isle of Wight Council had sought to keep elements of this correspondence away from elected members until such time as we were to be asked to make a decision on the proposal, and then to include it merely as an appendix to a report. This was material evidence that should have been fully disclosed during, and not after the consultation.
That correspondence suggests, inter alia, that the consultation document was unclear and inconsistent on the role and powers of the (unelected) mayor proposed to cover the combined authority; that the documentation is so poorly drafted that it should be withdrawn, re-written and the consultation run again; that the presentation of additional funding that has been discussed as already committed is fundamentally misleading; that it even misrepresents the number and identities of all the councils that may be involved; and that key issues such as highways are omitted.
The consultation is so flawed that in your author’s opinion it should be challenged as unlawful; not least because the outcome would have a deep and lasting impact upon the future of Hampshire County Council as a major stakeholder in the reform of local government and the devolution of powers, and whose wider community of residents has been completely ignored by the process.
But the driving forward of this project, recklessly towards the rocks it would seem, is flawed on another level. There is not a single member of the Isle of Wight Council who has an electoral mandate to bring about such a change. We have elections in May 2017. If the “Independent” Administration at County Hall want to proceed with these flawed plans, they should put such a commitment in their Manifesto and see what the electorate thinks. It will be rejected out of hand.
That rejection will be guttural. The people of the Isle of Wight value the independence of their identity and their right to self-determination at local government level. Governments over centuries have understood this, which is why in addition to our Lord and Deputy Lord Lieutenants we also have a High Sherriff and, indeed, until relatively recently a Governor (including from 1965 to 1974 the Earl Mountbatten of Burma). What they will not stomach is having their identity and their interests subsumed beneath those of two mainland cities.
What is more, those two mainland cities have very little in terms of similarity with the Island. They are both cities with a great history, but they are primarily major ports and industrial cities. The Island is primarily a rural and tourist economy. The success or otherwise of the Island’s economy is of little interest to those two cities. Indeed, it could be argued that thy have an interest in the Island’s economy being throttled since they would hope to benefit from a relocation of what is left of its industry to the mainland. That would be an inbuilt conflict that would store up tension and lead to massive disagreements in the future. Just like the countries entering the European Single Currency, the Island would risk being trapped in a burning building with no way out.
Do the people of the proud cities of Southampton and Portsmouth really want to be merging their powers and sharing a mayor (and an unelected one at that)? It seems from local media that others are waking up to this threat to their identities and autonomy.
Stated opposition to the badly conceived Solent Deal is being portrayed on the Island as a secret deal between Conservatives on the Island and the Conservatives running Hampshire County Council. Nothing could be further from the truth. The fact that some of us have looked at the teeth of this supposed gift horse from Portsmouth and Southampton and that we have found those teeth to be rotten and unsavoury, does not mean we’re on the cusp of throwing in our lot with Hampshire. Any proposal brought forward by Hampshire will be equally rigorously examined to see whether it is, or is not, in the best long term interests of the Island. That is the duty of elected councilors.
The final bizarre development in all of this, is that the controlling Labour-backed Independent Group on the Island committed itself to holding not a “consultation” but a full “referendum” on the proposals before going ahead. Either they renege now very obviously on that commitment, or the Solent Deal is dead in the water anyhow, since it will be widely rejected by any such plebiscite.
Bring on the elections in May so that we can return to County Hall a professional, organized and determined Conservative Administration and end the current nightmare of dysfunctionality and weak leadership.
In the meantime, Ministers and their advisors need urgently to bang some heads together and inject a dose of sanity and rationality into a debate which is going completely off the rails and risks bringing a potentially popular and well-intentioned Government initiative into disrepute.