Fri 28 January 2022

David Hencke and Isabelle Stanley report on Robert Jenrick’s latest attempt to throw money at marginal seats during an election period

Billions of pounds is to be channelled to local authorities by Robert Jenrick, the Communities Secretary, in a repeat of the pork barrel exercise that directed money to marginal seats during the 2019 General Election.

This time, the Towns Fund cash will be announced as part of a ‘Levelling Up’ fund, just before the May’s nationwide local elections, with the Conservatives hoping to seize control of councils in Labour heartlands.

Sources say that the current polling lead enjoyed by the Conservatives has encouraged the party to go on the offensive – attempting to win councils in the North and the Midlands.

Byline Times’ analysis of the £3.6 billion ‘Towns Fund’ grants handed out by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government’s (MHCLG) revealed that the vast proportion of the money had been allocated to seats the Conservatives were defending with small majorities – or seats the party hoped to win from Labour.

The ministry has confirmed that the next round of money will be linked to the £4 billion ‘Levelling Up’ programme – allowing it to be targeted at either Conservative councils with small majorities or Labour councils.

There are 541 towns classed by the ministry as suffering from social deprivation – the criteria for MHCLG funding – but the list was initially kept secret by the ministry, only published when the National Audit Office (NAO) released its report into the Town Deal last July. Before the NAO report, the towns involved had no idea they were being considered, unless they successfully received Government funding.

Byline Times contacted a number of towns that failed to receive any money and found this was the case. Immingham Town Council did not know about its inclusion, while Sunderland thought it had not been consulted because it was a city – while, in fact, according to the NAO, it is classified as a town by the ministry.

Yvette Cooper – Labour MP for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford – pointed out that Knottingley was excluded, despite having a higher need than other areas that were included, including Brighouse, Stocksbridge and Todmorden.

“Towns Fund investment should be going to those areas that need it most. It’s outrageous that decisions are being made to help Conservative ministers’ political friends instead. Knottingley desperately needs more investment after years of Government austerity and cuts to local budgets,” Cooper said. “Government ministers made decisions to put funding into their own constituencies and to help their political mates. It’s totally wrong and completely unfair.”

Dan Jarvis, MP for Barnsley Central and Mayor of South Yorkshire, said that towns like Barnsley “are crying out for meaningful investment in our infrastructure, our high streets and our public services. The Government were elected on a manifesto commitment to level up and empower Barnsley, South Yorkshire and the North of England, yet time and again their actions are serving to level us down.

“This was further underlined by the announcements in the Chancellor’s Spending Review to replace the Local Growth Fund, which has been the lifeblood of our regional economy, with a new ‘Levelling Up Fund’ that will be determined by ministers sat behind desks in Whitehall, not mayors with a fingertip knowledge of our local communities and economies.”

Ellesmere Port in Cheshire was another town that failed to receive money under the Towns Fund scheme – even though it has developed proposals for social regeneration. Its local Labour MP, Justin Madders, put down an urgent question in Parliament to Robert Jenrick, to complain about the treatment of his area.

Ramsgate – a town of 43,000 people and the fourth most deprived town in south-east England – also missed out, despite neighbouring Margate receiving investment. Ramsgate has been told that ministers decided not to give the town money because they wanted to “spread the funding more widely across England”.

Yet the town council – which had developed a number of project ideas to help the area – has now failed to gain any additional support. These proposals included a new community centre, sports centre, a marine engineering school, a fish market and a harbour redevelopment scheme.

A similar situation exists in Sheerness, which was also overlooked by ministers despite being a socially deprived town. The local Conservative MP for the area, Gordon Henderson, declined to comment.

Meanwhile, Conservative MPs who benefitted from the last round of funding are lining up new towns in their constituencies to benefit – using a recent parliamentary debate to lobby Jenrick.

Do keep an eye on Byline Times, to see where the money ends up.


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