We always welcome a Letter to the Editor to share with our readers – unsurprisingly they don’t always reflect the views of this publication. If you have something you’d like to share, get in touch and of course, your considered comments are welcome below. This from Cllr Stuart Hutchinson, Deputy Leader of Conservative Group, Chairman of Audit Committee. Ed
Let me say straightaway that what follows is a personal view, though I know that a great majority of colleagues in my own Conservative group, the Independent Members Group and UKIP share similar concerns. So do some of the Members of the ruling group.
There’s lots of information available on this deal – the Solent Mayoral Combined Authority, (MCA) to give its cumbersome title. But if you take the trouble to read the consultation document, you’ll find that it’s more like an advertisement than a consultation. It fails to present both sides of the argument equally.
Less than 1% of residents responded and yet despite the biased hype, almost a third were not convinced.
You may wonder why so many councillors – a majority of those present at the Council Meeting – didn’t want to continue talks about how this new Authority would be managed and voted against it.
Why we don’t like the deal
There’s not much public information about why we don’t like the deal. I hope that this letter will help to put that right.
Devolution, in its simplest terms, means that government will pass on to a new MCA the responsibility for doing some of the things it’s done itself in the past.
Councils have the freedom to decide which other councils they want to associate with and on what terms. Except it is made very clear there must be a Directly Elected Mayor, who will lead the new body. The present talks are about how that body will be governed. Not about what it would do, or about how it would get done or who would do it. That has to be thrashed out – if it is decided to go ahead.
Concerns around having a Mayor
In the early days of discussion, the devolution deal was about how we might associate with Hampshire and its District Councils. That discussion stopped because it became clear that Hampshire was concerned about having to have a single Mayor.
A second option then became available which was Portsmouth, Southampton and the Isle of Wight. Earlier this year, our Council decided to discuss that option. A Hampshire option may come back for discussion, but there will be similar concerns.
It’s becoming clearer what a Solent deal might mean and we have increasing worries about it. That’s why so many Councillors expressed that concern in the most tangible way they could, which was to vote not to continue with the process.
We could end up spending more time and money pursuing a course which becomes a dead end if a majority of Councillors refuse to back it.
That’s happened recently with a failed deal in Lincolnshire and with the North East Devolution deal, where four out of seven councils pulled out after initial talks.
What’s the deal?
It’s to create a new authority with new responsibilities by combining two rival cities 14 miles apart, with a mainly rural offshore Island.
That sounds like it might not work, so let’s look at what’s on offer.
£900m an indication not promise
It is that, if we choose to accept new responsibilities, government will give the MCA a grant of £30m a year for 30 years, or £900m in total.
That amount is not a promise, it’s an indication, but it’s likely. If that money wasn’t available we wouldn’t even think of taking this on. Will it be inflation proofed? We don’t know. If not it’s a lot less in real terms.
What is government spending on these services at the moment? We don’t know.
How much of it would the Island get? Based on population, perhaps £8m at most. Coincidentally that’s about the ongoing cut from our revenue budget next year.
Once 30 years is up?
At the end of the 30 years, if the pattern follows what previous governments have done, the money will cease and the MCA will pick up the bill. That is to say the three constituent Councils to will fund it. That’s us.
Unlike our PFI contract, this is not free money. It is to run new and complex services, not to help us with the underfunding we are presently struggling with.
Putting it in context
£0.9 billion sounds a lot of money and it is, but let’s put the amount into context.
Over the same 30 years the three Councils will be spending over £15bn and with inflation that will increase substantially. So the new money isn’t the huge pot of gold it’s being sold as.
What we do know is that every time government (of whatever political stripe) has given councils additional responsibilities, they have never given quite enough to cover the cost and the amount has withered over the years.
On those grounds alone we would be right not to take this further, though there are many other reasons why this deal is not right for this Island. I could outline them all here, but that would take more space than we have.
Little in common
Let me ask one final question, though. Do we really want to share a Mayor with Southampton and Portsmouth, and if that happens do we think the Island’s interests will be high on the agenda of those major industrial cities with which we have very little in common?
It was disappointing to see that, despite the Council’s decision, and not all of the Executive agreeing, the remainder decided at their meeting on Monday to continue regardless.
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