Cllr Chris Whitehouse is the Education Spokesman for the Conservative Group on the Isle of Wight Council and Chairman of The Whitehouse Consultancy.
Conservatives on the Isle of Wight breathed a massive sigh of relief at the end of the Autumn Statement, not because of what Philip Hammond announced, but because of what, thankfully, he did not. There was no announcement that the ill-fated and potentially disastrous Solent Combined Authority devolution bid would be pushed through.
What has united Conservative councillors and the Island MP on this issue, with the support of the overwhelming majority of Island residents and businesses, is that frankly the character and identity of the Island would be lost within such an arrangement, an arrangement that would inevitably mean that considerable power over the Island’s future economic development would be wielded by a mayor from Southampton or Portsmouth whose interests would be very different, indeed potentially contrary to those of the Island.
What is right for two major industrial port cities would not be right for a largely rural, tourist-driven island economy. Indeed, those cities would have a vested self-interest in encouraging what manufacturing industry remains on the Island to relocate to the mainland to boost the city economies.
We are not luddites. It is right that our Government should pursue the option of devolution for those areas that genuinely want it and for whom it is genuinely appropriate, and if, for those areas, that means merging powers with other authorities, then so be it.
We have no objection to Sajid Javid as Secretary of State and Andrew Percy as his Devolution Minister pursuing that agenda, but in relation to the Island the desire by officials and advisers to deliver more bids seems to have clouded their judgement and distorted the advice given to Ministers.
On the Island, along with every resident in my ward who has expressed an opinion, we simply felt bounced into a deal that was fundamentally flawed in terms of its governance arrangements and proposed ménage à trois between the Island, Southampton and Portsmouth.
The Conservative Group voted unanimously at Full Council to block this deal being forced upon us, the Full Council itself voted against the merger, and even members of the Executive Opposed it. Despite their rapidly abandoned pledge to hold a referendum before going down this route, the Labour and Liberal Democrat supported Administration made it clear it was going to be forced through.
Next May, all 40 members of the Isle of Wight County Council are up for re-election. Unless and until the “Independents” put this proposal into their manifesto and are returned to office on that basis, they have absolutely no mandate to take this policy any further. It has been a huge and naïve waste of time and precious resources, resources that the Isle of Wight Council simply does not have to spare.
We’ve been accused by the shallow political opportunists who run the Administration of planning a secret deal with Hampshire. That is simply untrue. We remain implacably opposed to sharing a mayor with anywhere on the mainland; there is no Hampshire deal to discuss, and even if there were, your author’s own position would simply be that we aren’t interested in any formal mayoral arrangement.
What we need instead, and what Conservatives on the Island are determined to deliver, is defence and further promotion of the Island’s unique identity and innovative arrangements that will enable us to deliver higher quality services in partnership with whoever is best for that particular arrangement, whether that be other local authorities, the third sector, or businesses.
Already, under an inspired move by Michael Gove, our Children’s Services, including education, are delivered in partnership with Hampshire. Our roads, thanks to an excellent government PFI project that is really delivering improvement, are maintained by a commercial partner. We share a Finance Officer with Portsmouth. Our waste collection and recycling work is contracted out. Most of our primary schools are voluntary controlled or voluntary aided, under the auspices of the Church of England and Roman Catholic Church respectively.
This is the way we should continue to operate in future, developing innovative projects that fit our particular needs, not crow-barred into a one size fits all arrangement that consigns the Island to decades of conflict with its forced marriage partners.
Government advisors should have smelled the rat much earlier and avoided creating so much distress on the Island. The lesson to be learned here is for Ministers and the Chairman of the Party, Patrick McLoughlin, to consult with local Conservatives on the Island before, not after, Ministers bring forward policy initiatives that will adversely impact upon its residents.
The decision not to make an announcement in the Autumn Statement was wise, prudent and well-received by the people of the Island. Hopefully, Sajid Javid will now liaise closely with our Island MP, Andrew Turner, to ensure that the proposal is buried once and for all, so that we can work with Sajid to find alternative routes to deliver the economic growth that we are all determined to see.