Is there a strategy for the Central South region? – this was the burning question put before regional leaders when they met in the New Forest on Friday, September 20.
Hosted by the Southern Policy Centre, its founder, Professor John Denham, laid out the challenges but also the huge opportunities.
“We know Government has been giving practical support to areas that have a strong voice, and there is a sense that we do not.”
But he added: “There is now a real opportunity to take things to the next stage, and to make this a reality.”
The Southern Policy Forum, working with partners including BECG, set out four cornerstones to provide a stronger regional message, if our region is to compete within a global economy:
- Articulate a shared narrative
- Determine common priorities
- Extend planning and transportation cooperation
- Develop regional networks, for example in higher and further education
Over 100 delegates came together at Careys Manor Hotel in Brockenhurst to discuss if these shared goals could be realised.
They heard that the region has much to offer with an economy worth £119bn and 360,000 jobs, but it also boasts culture and heritage, sporting success, miles of scenic coastline and two national parks.
This was well articulated by New Forest National Park Chief Executive Alison Barnes who said: “We should strive to be the place where the environment and the economy come together.”
And bringing everyone together with a common narrative and regional strategy was one of the key outcomes from the event.
Southampton City Council Leader, Cllr Christopher Hammond, said: “We are told time after time by Government that you need to speak with one voice and have one common strategy.”
Many stakeholders agreed that producing such a strategy was the next logical step, but just as one answer presented itself, inevitably more questions arose, as pointed out succinctly by Rob Dunford, Assistant Director of Enterprise M3 Local Economic Partnership.
“Who’s leading this, who’s driving it and who’s resourcing it,” was his challenge to the delegates.
It would be unfair to expect immediate answers, but also sensible to table such fundamental questions sooner rather than later.
After all, the Hampshire Devolution deal ultimately came to nothing because many key players had too much to lose with proposed new structures of local government led by an all-powerful elected mayor.
Mindful that the region needs to move on from that episode and find a new approach, Professor John Denham was keen to stress that the Southern Policy Centre was not suggesting boundaries should be redrawn, or local authorities reorganised. It was more about a consistent message.
That approach was echoed by Fareham Borough Council Leader and Chair of Partnership for South Hampshire, Cllr Seán Woodward.
“What we need to develop is an approach to Government that identifies a ‘shared ask’,” he explained.
The event certainly provided food for thought, and there is no doubt that the region has the right ingredients – it’s just a case of somebody writing the recipe to bring it all together. Once they do, it will undoubtedly be a recipe for success.
BECG has been working with both the Southern Policy Centre and Business South’s Regen South action group to start to evolve a regional narrative.