Last week it was confirmed that the bid to create a new Solent Combined Authority – comprising Portsmouth, Southampton and Isle of Wight Councils – has been rejected by the government, to the surprise and disappointment of (most of) the applicant authorities. Jake Berry, the Minister for devolution, recently wrote to Stephen Morgan MP (Portsmouth South) to tell him the bad news that ‘the 2016 devolution is not on the table’. This rather upset the Leaders of Portsmouth and Southampton who felt they had been bypassed. But the government claims that the Prime Minister had written, as had Jake Berry in August….missing post aside, what does all of this mean?
The official explanation from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government is, rather cryptically, that they are ‘developing a devolution framework to clarify what devolution means for different administrations’. This is the much anticipated (and much delayed) ‘consolidation’ promised in the last Conservative manifesto. Without seeing it, it’s anyone’s guess as to why the new framework would preclude a Solent Combined Authority.
Does the rejection of the Solent bid and the framework’s delay signify the ‘death’ of devolution, as foreseen by LGA Chair Lord Porter? Or perhaps there will be an opportunity for devolution in the Solent outside the combined authority model?
There may, of course, have been local factors at play. Conservative-led Hampshire County Council were against the proposal. And, perhaps crucially, the Isle of Wight is now run by a Conservative administration who are sceptical of the proposal’s merits; when the bid was lodged in 2016, Independents were in control.
Whatever happens in the Solent, the future of English devolution is somewhat murky. Dan Jarvis is still in limbo in Sheffield, whilst a proposal for ‘One Yorkshire’ devolution has been sent back to the drawing board by James Brokenshire. A new framework is an opportunity to set out how future devolution can give meaning to the phrase ‘take back control’. Let’s see if the government takes it.