REDCAR & CLEVELAND: Levelling up, or recipe for division?
Levelling up in Redcar and Cleveland
Millions of pounds worth of Government cash that local councils have been invited to bid for have been touted as “game changing’’ for parts of Redcar and Cleveland.
The likes of the Towns Fund, Future High Streets and the Levelling Up Fund all have pots of money available for councils hungry for investment in their areas.
Redcar and Cleveland Council has been successful with bids which will pay for schemes in Redcar, Loftus and other parts of the borough, while a near £40m levelling up bid with a heavy focus on improving transport links was recently submitted to the Government.
So what’s not to like?
Councils have been competing for various Government regeneration funds for the past few years – the latest being the £4.8bn Levelling Up Fund.
In the Budget in March, Chancellor Rishi Sunak said applications were being sought for cash from the fund, which is investing in infrastructure such as town centres and local transport.
The Conservatives first promised to “level up” the country in their manifesto for the 2019 general election – with the aim of trying to address regional disparities – and have used the phrase multiple times since Boris Johnson became Prime Minister.
Mr Johnson has insisted levelling up is “not a jam-spreading operation and not robbing Peter to pay Paul”, instead it’s “win-win”.
But doubts remain over the Government’s approach.
In May peers on the Lord’s Public Services Committee said levelling up needed to be more targeted to prevent deprived areas being “short changed”.
Its chairman Baroness Armstrong said: “Not only places but the people who live in them should be at the heart of ‘levelling up’.
“Social infrastructure and support provided by public services is at least as critical to communities as investment in roads and bridges.”
And in March the Industrial Strategy Council, chaired by the Bank of England’s chief economist, said the Government’s plans involved “centrally controlled funding pots thinly spread across a range of initiatives” which were unlikely to succeed.
Meanwhile, a group of 50 Conservative MPs has called for extra investment to be rolled out to northern England at a greater pace to deal with the economic impact of the covid-19 pandemic.
The leader of Bradford Council, Susan Hinchcliffe, recently described the Levelling Up Fund as being like a “beauty contest” for councils and complained about her authority competing against richer, southerly councils.
Redcar and Cleveland Council managing director John Sampson previously told councillors the bidding process was very competitive and predicted the fund would be heavily oversubscribed.
The £3.6bn Towns Fund, which aims to shape towns and cities into places into places where businesses and communities can thrive, has also been subject to criticism.
The latest tranche of funding announced in June saw £25m awards to Redcar and Hartlepool.
But 22 of the 26 places that received cash were also represented by Conservative MPs, adding fuel to the suspicion of some that rather than being part of the Government’s levelling up agenda, it is a way to funnel money into areas that are of political benefit to the Tory party.
On a recent visit to Hartlepool and Redcar, Housing, Communities and Local Government Secretary Robert Jenrick denied this and said Hartlepool was already in line for funding prior to the recent by-election win by Conservative MP Jill Mortimer, who took the seat from Labour.
He said bids were scrutinised rigorously with local councils having to demonstrate that their plans were good value for money and had a strong business case.
Mr Jenrick said the Government had enabled councils to increase their revenues and also given them extra funding.
Earlier this year the not-for-profit campaign organisation the Good Law Project began legal proceedings against the Government in respect of the Towns Fund, stating there is a lack of transparency in the process.
It said: “This Government is creating a system where it pits communities against each other to fight for funding and where winning seems to rest on whether they are of strategic importance in future elections.
“The losers will be the poorer communities that miss out.”
‘Recipe for division’
Professor John Tomaney, formerly of Newcastle University, now of the Bartlett School of Planning at University College London, has written more than a hundred books and articles on local and regional development and conducted research on behalf of the European Commission, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and various think tanks in the UK and abroad.
Prof Tomaney, who lives in the North-East, told the Local Democracy Reporting Service he believed that rather than levelling up, the Government was creating “a recipe for division”.
He said: “There is quite a bit of convincing evidence now that some of this money available is being used to reward constituencies which have voted Conservative.
“Your best chance of getting money from the Towns Fund was to be a Conservative Parliamentary seat.
“This is really a recipe for division rather than levelling up.”
Prof Tomaney said there was broad agreement that there were big regional inequalities in Britain, wider than in many other European countries.
He said: “It was in the places that – in the jargon of our times – have been ‘left behind’ that the Conservatives have made their big electoral gains recently.
“They are trying to consolidate these gains and one way for them to do this is to use central Government money to reward the places which have voted for them.
“This is a political strategy, it isn’t really about levelling up the country socially and economically.”
Prof Tomaney said council leaders would prefer funding levels prior to the introduction of austerity measures over the last decade to be restored.
He said: “When you divide up the money that has been distributed from the Towns Fund – for example – between lots of local authorities it isn’t that much.
“It is also a trivial amount of money when you consider the cuts that local councils have had to make across the country, particularly Northern Labour councils, since the election of the coalition Government in 2010.
“If you said to local authorities you will spend a lot of time and effort bidding for resources that you may or may not get and they’ll have to be spent on things that central Government is directing you towards they will no doubt say they’d rather the budgets they previously had would be restored and decide how to spend the money themselves.
“Local authorities have to bid for this money because there is no other money available so when they do get it they are going to be happy that they have got the money, rather than not have it.
“But whether it is a means of levelling up – which the Government says is its overall objective – is I think highly questionable.”
Prof Tomaney said one difficulty facing councils in the UK generally was that local Government was “extraordinarily weak”.
He said: “It is underfunded, almost all of its money comes from central Government rather than being raised locally, it has a very limited range of powers and virtually no constitutional protectors.
“In most other countries you have local taxes, which fund local Government, which insulates local councils to some degree or another from this problem we have in the UK where local authorities are forced to scrabble among each other for money thrown out by central Government.
“How do local councils get anything done if they don’t know from year to year how much money they have got?”
‘Forgotten about for decades’
In Redcar and Cleveland, where the ruling independent/Liberal Democrat coalition is helping to keep the Labour opposition out, Government regeneration funds are proving something of a boon, particularly for parts of east Cleveland, which arguably have been overlooked previously.
During a council committee debate last December Liberal Democrat councillor Chris Jones welcomed the funding and said some outlying east Cleveland villages had been “forgotten about for decades”.
Until recent money for Redcar, Loftus – where council leader Mary Lanigan has her ward seat – had been the biggest beneficiary, receiving £5.83m from the Future High Streets Fund last year, which is aimed at transforming its high street as part of a wider masterplan for the town.
Written by Stuart Arnold, Local Democracy Reporter
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