The 2019 Conservative Manifesto promised to set up a Towns Fund. It pledged “a new deal for towns” adding:
“Our new Towns Fund will help communities make sure their towns are safe to walk in and a pleasure to be in. We want there to be things to do, great places to shop and eat and transport to be easy. Above all, we want the town’s future to be in the hands of the people who live there.”
It went on to give some details:
So there can hardly be an objection, on democratic grounds, that this undertaking is being delivered. As well as the Towns Fund, with a £3.6 billion budget, we have the £4.8 billion Levelling Up Fund – to pay for infrastructure including regenerating town centre and high streets, upgrading local transport, and investing in cultural and heritage assets.
Nonetheless, there have been complaints that this has been applied in a partisan manner. Bids are locally led. The Guardian reports that:
“40 of the 45 towns in the first tranche of towns fund spending were represented by Conservative MPs.”
A couple of points should be considered. Firstly, these bids are locally led. If a Labour-run local authority refuses to apply – or to make much effort with the application – that is not the Government’s fault.
Secondly, the Conservatives do have a large majority in Parliament. Yet Labour still dominate in the big cities – London, Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Sheffield, Bradford, Leicester. By contrast, even during the Blair landslides, the villages and the farmers tended to stick with the Conservatives – the rural areas were still predominantly Conservative. Thus Labour MPs will tend to represent the constitiuencies sent city funding; Conservative MPs will usually represent the seats sent rural funding.
So the towns are the crucial places where elections are won or lost. That broad political point is well established – though there were some impressive results last time in the particular towns where the Conservative gained seats. The simple arithmetic that Labour got trounced overall, but still held large number of seats in the cities makes those figure from The Guardian rather less shocking than they might first appear.
The scandal would be if the application for funding to regenerate (or “level up”) a town had been rejected due to it having a Labour MP – while a rival bid was accepted due to it having a Conservative MP. (Or, a variation on the theme, a Ministerial seat favoured over that of a humble backbencher.) Such conspiracy theories are well established, but strike me as implausible. Apart from any ethical considerations, the Minister who instructed civil servants to skew the process in such a manner would be unlikely to get away with it. It would all cause a bit of a stink.
The problem is that criteria for local government finance are so complicated and impenetrable it makes such claims hard to disprove. There is nothing new in this. During the Thatcher/Major era it would be claimed that Wandsworth Council only managed to have such low rates / poll tax / Council Tax due to preferential funding from central Government. Of course, after 1997 and the Labour Government, Wandsworth continued to have a dramatically lower Council Tax than neighbouring Labour authorities.
This new fund is not about favouring one deprived town over another one. But it is about giving favourable treatment to all such places. That is not unreasonable. Our towns have been neglected. The EU’s structural funds were of little use to anyone beyond those administering them. But the European Regional Development Fund would be skewed to shiny prestige projects in city centres rather than the humbler, more practical needs of struggling towns. Not that cities have been forgotten about in other Government schemes. Liverpool is to become a freeport.
Of course, to say that the Towns Funds spending is likely to be more effective than EU regional aid is setting the bar rather low. But this arrangement does allow local priorities to be recognised. It is for the people of Darlington or Grimsby to decide which road needs to be improved. Not just for Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, and his officials to micromanage from the centre. Or for Gillian Keegan, the Skills Minister, to tell them what training programmes are needed, or for Oliver Dowden, the Culture Secretary, to instruct them as to which bits of their town’s heritage should be preserved.
A council leader from the Midlands told me:
“I do like the approach of allowing local decisions on what transport improvements should be a priority. We don’t need devolution – with extra layers of metro Mayors or whatever. We need decentralisation to the local government already in place.”
Therefore, the charges of political favouritism are unconvincing. There is also a reasonable case that if this money is to be spent, then local input should be genuine. Whether the broader approach will succeed is more contentious. Could it not be that state intervention is not the means to levelling up, but an obstruction? It always seems to be assumed that public spending is required for regeneration. Yet so much of the derelict land and buildings are owned by the local authority – or other branches of the public sector. Could these sites not be sold to developers to agree to transform them into beautiful homes and businesses? The price might vary according to location, and the condition the property was in. But surely it would be possible for such projects to be commercially viable, without huge subsidies. If that really is not the case, then the prospects of success would seem slim, regardless of how much public money is poured in.