Joint statement from Mayor Dan Jarvis, Leader of Barnsley Council, Cllr Sir Steve Houghton CBE, Mayor of Doncaster Ros Jones, Councillor Chris Read, Leader of Rotherham Council and Councillor Bob Johnson, Leader of Sheffield City Council.
The government promised to put levelling up at the centre of their agenda. But since taking office, they have distributed resources in a way which shows that to be a hollow façade, driven by politics and expediency rather than any serious attempt to address the deep seated challenges facing the parts of the UK most in need of support. Behind the rhetoric, actual funding and support have been tilted towards areas that are already well off, while areas most in need of investment have been left behind.
That has been especially visible in recent decisions, including:
Levelling Up Fund
The flagship Levelling Up Fund puts the Chancellor’s own constituency of Richmondshire, ranked number 251 out of 317 in England’s deprivation index, in a higher category of need than places like Barnsley, ranked 38, Salford, ranked 20, Halton, ranked 39 or Sheffield, ranked 93. Overall, a third of English areas picked to receive money are not in the top third of the most deprived regions, and the vast majority of these are Tory areas.
UK Community Renewal Fund
Almost a third of the areas in England selected to receive money under the UKCRF are not amongst the most deprived local areas – including places like Richmondshire and East Northamptonshire. Of these, almost 90% are entirely represented by Conservative MPs.
Of the 45 places recently designated to receive a share of £1bn in Towns Fund spending, 39 are represented by Conservative MPs, an imbalance so marked it is impossible to believe it is coincidental. The Public Accounts Committee found that the selection process used earlier by the Towns Fund “was not impartial,” and raised serious concerns over politicisation and lack of transparency.
South Yorkshire’s bid for a Freeport was turned down despite it scoring higher across many categories – including the regeneration category most closely linked to levelling up – than many of the successful bids. On aggregate half the successful bids scored lower than South Yorkshire – two others were equal and just two higher.
There is a clear pattern here – which several other decisions reinforce. South Yorkshire was largely ignored in this year’s budget, and critical projects like Northern Powerhouse Rail are in doubt. The government has cut dedicated levelling up funds like the LUF substantially compared to their predecessors, and moved funds to restricted, competitive pots that make strategic planning extremely difficult and are easily influenced by Whitehall.
The government claims decisions are made on the basis of impartial criteria. This is dubious – some of the measures listed give considerable room for discretion. But more importantly it is irrelevant. Whatever formula was used, it’s the one this government chose. If their formula gives a result which systematically favours rich areas over poor, then it’s the wrong formula – and they should change it.
For levelling up to have a chance of succeeding against the deep-seated challenges we face, it needs a detailed plan, based on clear goals, local understanding, and local leadership, and backed by transformative, reliable, long-term resources. The government has declined even to define what levelling up means in any meaningful way.
The brutal reality is that places like South Yorkshire are being levelled down by a triple whammy of industrial decline, COVID, and the worst effects of austerity. We deserve better from the nation’s leaders. They preach levelling up, but their actions reflect how little of a priority they really give to it – and that speaks louder than their words ever could.
We are not going to let this decide our fate. We are taking our future into our own hands with an ambitious programme of investment and reform, building on our enormous strengths and potential. We have already accomplished a huge amount in the past few years. But we ask the government to keep its promises and make the transformative investment levelling up implies, so we can create the change our region needs with the urgency we deserve. Anything else will be treating our people with contempt.
- In addition to the points set out above, the concerns the leaders raised included:
- The allocation of COVID support money on a per capita basis that ignores the much higher damage caused by the pandemic in some areas, for example to poorer households, or to areas with a greater concentration of vulnerable businesses.
- They shuffling of money from one fund to another in a way which makes the amounts actually available substantially less impressive than the amounts that are announced. Half the Levelling Up Fund this year will come from the Towns Fund – which has already provided £325m to the Future High Streets Fund and will provide more to the new Freeports.
- The failure to make levelling up a factor in the initial roll out of high speed broadband, with Conservative-dominated Tees Valley, Cambridgeshire, Dorset, Northumberland and Essex included, while Yorkshire and Humber, Greater Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham are left out of the first and second waves.
- We compared bids for Freeports based on the government’s published assessment. The use of broad low, medium and high categories rather than quantitative scores complicates objective comparison, but if we allocate one point to a low categorisation, two points to medium, and three to high, the results are that South Yorkshire has 12 points. The successful bids have from 9.5 to 15. (East Midlands 9.5; Felixstowe 11; Humber 15; Liverpool 12; Plymouth 11; Solent 10; Teeside 12; Thames 14)