MOVES to unite the “central south” as a region to rival the Northern Powerhouse or Midlands Engine has been welcomed by businesses and public sector chiefs.

Leading figures from Southampton, Portsmouth, the M3 corridor and the south east of Dorset came together to hear calls for the area to “speak with one voice” to government.

Professor John Denham, former Southampton Itchen MP and now director of the Southern Policy Centre, told a gathering in the New Forest: “We know that government has been giving resources, powers and also political support to parts of England that have a clear regional identity and strategy and there’s a sense that we don’t.

“We need a powerful voice to influence the national debate to be able to persuade government that this part of the south is critical for the whole of the UK but also has challenges of its own.”

Simon Eden, fellow director of the Southern Policy Centre, said the region was not telling a “common story” which would help it bid for government infrastructure money. “There’s a risk that we’re missing an opportunity to make a strong case that other geographical areas are making,” he said.

The event, at Careys Manor Hotel in Brockenhurst, presented the conclusions of a research project into the challenges facing the area.

Robin Shepherd of the action group Regenerate South said the area needed to “shout about” is assets.

“Someone described it as having as series of beautiful instruments but what we needed was an orchestra,” he said.

Alison Barnes, chief executive of the New Forest National Park Authority, said the area needed to promote its natural environment.

The New Forest was the “fourth most Instagrammed national park in the world”, she said. “That tells you what the outside world really thinks of us,” she added.

“I think we should strive to be the place where the environment and the economy come together and the climate emergency today is giving us a very strong impetus for the voice of the next generation.”

Graham Farrant, chief executive of the new Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council, said Bournemouth Airport and the Port of Poole were now in the same local authority area for the first time. The area’s assets also included a world-class symphony orchestra and two well regarded universities.

Professor Graham Galbraith of the University of Portsmouth welcomed moves to work together.

“The real threat is that the government will not see the need to invest in and the regional businesses will not see a compelling argument to invest in the region if we do not have a clear and compelling, ambitious view of where it will go,” he said.

Southampton City Council leader Cllr Chris Hammond said: “What we are told time and time again by government is we need to speak with one voice and we need to have one common story and I think we’ve always struggled with that.

"In Southampton, in this region, we’ve got world class assets but we’ve got a very modest mindset. We’ve got to be shameless about this.”

He added: “Unless we work together and lobby together to explain what we’re trying to do, then we will really struggle to meet the challenges and opportunities that Brexit will bring.

“What the Central South gives us is that quick shorthand so when we get that 10-20 minutes or the hour with the minister, we can quickly explain what we’re about what we’re trying to do and why we should be persuading them to support us.”

Tim Hancock, managing director of the Bournemouth-based planning and design firm Terence O’Rourke, said he had been to an international trade show where the UK stand made no mention of the south.

“I said to the government official, ‘Why are we not represented here?’ and he said ‘It’s quite simple. We don’t have a government policy for the central south region’.”

He added: “The overreaching vision for our region is all about accessibility, it’s all about attracting investment and growth – but it’s also about protecting what’s already here. I know for sure that there are businesses thinking about relocating from this region already.”

Sean Woodward, leader of Fareham Borough Council and chair of the Partnership for Central Hampshire, urged people not to “get too bogged down” in defining the physical boundaries of the region.

“The Northern Powerhouse and the Midlands Engine have a very loose geography and I think that’s the right thing,” he said.

Professor Denham suggested a united region should be based around the three coastal city areas – Southampton, Portsmouth and the Bournemouth-Poole-Christchurch conurbation.

“In a sense what we were trying to do was find a Goldilocks region that was not too small and not too big – small enough to have real focus on the issues that matter to us,” he said.

“The best fit to us at least seemed to be something that was focused on these three regional coastal cities which are part of our area, which recognises beyond those in Dorset and Hampshire.

He added: “We’re talking about a core area that has fuzzy boundaries, not a sharp line on a map that says suddenly you’re inside or outside the region.”