RECENTLY (on January 19), councils discovered that wealthy areas, including the prime minister’s Richmond constituency (receiving £19m), will benefit from the new £2.1bn pot of funding, while many deprived areas will miss out.
The lack of focus and strategy is evident in the approval of a worthy, but somewhat bizarre, range of projects. A new seafront for Cleethorpes, an “obesity project” for Farnborough, an “AI campus” for Blackpool, a Brexit relief road for Dover, and more.
Widespread discontent with the process and the outcome of the allocation of funding was expressed by council leaders and MPs across the country. Conservative mayor of the West Midlands Andy Street, decried the government’s “begging bowl culture” and said he had pressed ministers for answers on why some of the region’s poorest areas had lost out.
Shadow Levelling Up Secretary Lisa Nandy said: “The levelling up fund is in chaos, beset by delays and allegations of favouritism.” Nandy argued that the announcement is the “equivalent of handing us a fiver and nicking 20 quid out of our back pocket…” referring to the money recently stripped out of community budgets for vital services such as child care, bus services and social care.
Levelling up first reared its head during the election campaign of 2019. It took until February 2022 before Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove attempted to provide a strategic direction for the funding. His ‘12 missions’ amounted to vague promises without specific targets.
Gove said it would “shift both money and power into the hands of working people”.
But Andy Street clearly feels Gove’s strategy has not been successful, stating: “The centralised system of London civil servants making local decisions is flawed and I cannot understand why the levelling up funding money was not devolved for local decision-makers to decide on what is best for their areas…”
What we have seen this week is the prime minister jetting up north to demonstrate his commitment to ‘levelling up’ by enthusiastically reminding us he was actually visiting Accrington, Morecambe and the North East.
Sunak was quick to point out a higher proportion (per person) of the £2.1bn funding was allocated to the north of England. To put that in perspective, the Treasury has committed £5bn a year to the HS2 railway project which primarily serves the home counties, cancelled the east-west rail link between Leeds and Manchester, while London celebrates the opening of the £19bn Elizabeth underground line.
According to the government, allocation of funding is not only determined by deprivation, but takes into account value for money, deliverability, and whether the project fits with the priorities of the levelling up fund. This broad range of factors have had major implications for funding allocations and understandably led to accusations, from regional leaders, of the government offering “pre-election bribes”
It is worth noting that vulnerable Conservative marginal seats, those with majorities of fewer than 8,000 votes, have received 1.5 times the amount of funding per person than all other constituencies.