Comment Blog 13 September, 2023

Choppy waters for devolution: Hampshire and the Isle of Wight

Rachael Powell
Research Assistant

We are in the middle of a wave of devolution, with a plan for new combined authorities across the whole of England. In many places, existing local authorities will have mixed feelings about this idea.

Isle of Wight Council (IWC) is pushing back against a devolution deal for a combined authority led by Hampshire County Council — an interesting example of how complicated the devolution process can be. Smaller local authorities are at risk of feeling disempowered, and debates can get caught up with local identity, politics, and needs.

The Isle of Wight has unique challenges that mainland England does not face. The University of Portsmouth argues that the realities of operating public services on an island means that IWC needs extra resources. There have been many calls from the Island for extra funding and powers, and in 2019 former Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised an ‘Island Deal’ funding pack to meet Isle of Wight’s needs — a promise that has not been fulfilled.

As set out in the government’s Levelling Up White Paper, areas of England have been invited to propose a devolution deal to the government as a way to devolve more power and resources to local authorities. Hampshire County Council has proposed a deal to create a combined authority with the councils of Southampton, Portsmouth, and Isle of Wight to create a so-called ‘Southern Powerhouse’, or pan-Hampshire deal, likely with a directly elected mayor.

On paper, this seems like a plausible route to the additional resources that the Island needs. But many IWC councillors have expressed scepticism over the pan-Hampshire deal, claiming it would not help the Island “one iota” and is “not a good deal for us”. Instead, IWC, along with Southampton City Council and Portsmouth City Council, proposed an alternative ‘Solent Deal’, excluding Hampshire.

Explaining why reveals the complexities — of local identity, political loyalty, and economic geography — that feed into any effort to devolve powers to the regional level. North Hampshire is often considered to be separate from the rest of Hampshire, as its local economy is connected more strongly to London than to South Hampshire, while Southampton and Portsmouth are economic hubs in themselves, with their own commuter communities. Councillor Peacey-Wilcox from IWC feels that “very little would come to the Island if we are lumped in with three bigger councils”. They wrote to the Government setting out an alternative plan for a two-deal approach – the Solent Deal and a separate Hampshire deal — but this was rejected, and now the pan-Hampshire deal is progressing to negotiation with central government.

The creation of a combined authority risks smaller local authorities feeling unheard and crowded-out out by larger, louder authorities — as, arguably, we are seeing now with IWC and others. Councillor Steve Pitt, Leader of Portsmouth City Council, says that he was “blindsided” by Hampshire County Council following the announcement that the government is supporting the pan-Hampshire deal, as devolving power to local authorities “wouldn’t happen with a county deal”.

Political differences are also likely contributing to the difficulties between the different councils. Hampshire County Council, as is typical of county councils, is Conservative, while the smaller city councils of Southampton and Portsmouth are run by Labour and the Lib Dems respectively, and IWC is a coalition between independents, Greens, and a local political party.

This political dimension adds to an already-complex picture. In 2016, a ‘Solent Deal’ involving the Isle of Wight, Portsmouth and Southampton fell through due to a difference in opinion. Some suggest that the way forward is to dissolve Hampshire County Council to create a Solent deal including south and mid Hampshire, and leaving London-facing North Hampshire to create its own deal with surrounding areas.

The creation of combined authorities at the regional scale is not just about unlocking funding and powers from central government. Constituent councils will, by definition, need to give up some powers over decisions and resources too.

While the now-progressing pan-Hampshire deal is in some ways a bottom-up affair, as Hampshire County Council is leading negotiations, it is important that smaller local authorities’ voices are not drowned out. Many have felt that the pan-Hampshire deal is being pushed by central government in a manner that lacks “imagination” and is a “tick box attitude”.

The experience of this part of England is instructive. The forthcoming introduction of county combined authorities — which will not need to have the consent of lower-tier local authorities within their jurisdiction before being established — are likely to supercharge debates like these.

When devolution works, it is because it gives powers to people with direct local knowledge to make a difference in their local area. This depends on genuine local ‘ownership’ of, and a sense of connection to, the structure that emerges from devolution processes, so that the system authentically stems from local collaboration. Differences of politics, identity, and local priority can get in the way of this kind of collaboration between different constituent councils. This will be a growing challenge as the great combined authority rollout continues.