Sam Bright explores how private firms are making money from the Government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda

A multi-national consultancy firm based in London is set to receive £13.7 million in Government ‘Towns Fund’ spending – more than the town of Mansfield in the east midlands.

The Government last week announced that the value of a contract awarded to Ove Arup and Partners would be extended to July 2022 and raised by £2.5 million – to a total of £13.7 million.

In exchange, the firm – which posts annual revenues of some £1.8 billion – will continue to provide “strategic consultancy support to local areas” that have been developing proposals for the Government’s Towns Fund, part of its ‘levelling up’ programme.

The contract says that local areas “will face capacity and capability gaps that hinder them from developing and delivering good proposals and interventions under the Towns Fund” – which seeks to facilitate economic regeneration and higher productivity in more deprived parts of the country.

Therefore, Arup will be expected to “provide access to expertise across a range of areas relevant for the turnaround and regeneration in struggling towns”, including “urban planning”, “strategy development”, “community engagement” and “business innovation”.

The first £2.3 billion provided to 101 Towns Fund recipients was announced by the Government in July 2021, out of an overall budget of £3.6 billion, with most areas receiving between £20 million and £30 million. Mansfield, however, was allocated the least amount of money, £12.3 million, less than the value of the consultancy contract awarded to Arup.

Represented by Conservative MP Ben Bradley, Mansfield was ranked in 2019 as the most deprived district in Nottinghamshire, while the Mirror concluded in 2020 that Mansfield was the 25th most deprived area of the country. Bradley did not respond to Byline Times’ request for comment.

Alex Norris MP, Labour’s Shadow Levelling Up Minister, told Byline Times: “For a decade, the Tories have hollowed out local government with cuts to their budget. 

“Now communities face the double-insult of losing the very cash that’s supposed to help them rebuild to firms based in London. Those who know our communities best are those who live and work there, so they should be trusted to make the decisions that are right for their areas and given the power and resources needed to allow this to happen.”


Pork Barrel Politics

The allocation of Towns Fund cash has been plagued by controversy. The Institute for Government has calculated that, strangely, ‘low priority’ towns have been allocated more funding per head of population than ‘high priority’ towns – with the Government assessing each bid based on regeneration and investment opportunities, levels of income deprivation, transport links (or lack of them), and ensuring that a spread of towns receive funds across each region.

Meanwhile, the Government has been accused of funnelling money towards Conservative constituencies, with reports showing that Conservative MPs represented 39 of the first 45 Towns Fund recipients.

Bury South MP Christian Wakeford – who dramatically defected from the Conservatives to Labour in January – accused senior ministers of threatening to withhold local funding if he voted against the Government, while he was a Conservative MP.

It has also been suggested that the Government’s levelling up schemes – including the Towns Fund – are insufficient, given the regional inequalities that currently afflict the UK.

Byline Times calculated, for example, that the Government’s ‘Levelling Up Fund’ allocated just £1.25 billion to areas that lost £25.5 billion in spending power after 2010 due to the Conservative Party’s austerity agenda. The Levelling Up Fund is an extension of the Towns Fund, dedicated to “town centre and high street regeneration, local transport projects, and cultural and heritage assets”.

A fortnight ago, the Government released its long-awaited levelling up white paper, spelling out exactly how it plans to address the structural inequalities that exist between the UK’s different nations and regions. It was criticised for pointing firmly at the problem but not dedicating enough funds to solve it.

“Regional inequalities [in the UK] have been established over decades, and the only way to tackle them has to be through long-term, sustainable plans which we are yet to see any detail of”, Erica Roscoe, senior research fellow at the IPPR North think tank, said after the paper’s release.

It has also previously been revealed that local authorities have spent millions on employing private consultants in an effort to win levelling up funds from the Government. The Yorkshire Post reported in November that councils in the county had spent £3 million in this manner – with different councils using the same consultancy firms to bid for the same pots of funding.

In January 2021, meanwhile, Arup’s Global Transport Leader, Isabel Dedring, was appointed to the Government’s ‘Build Back Better Council’ – an alliance of 30 business leaders who advise officials and ministers on how to “unlock private sector investment, boost job creation, launch a green industrial revolution and level up the UK economy to reduce regional inequalities”.

A Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities spokesperson said: “Councils applying for funding from the Towns Fund have asked us for help with developing their proposals and projects.

“Support is made available to all 101 towns in the scheme through the Towns Fund Delivery Partner, led by Arup, and we anticipate this support will result in markedly better outcomes from the Towns Fund. This contract was awarded through the usual open procurement process and passed all value for money assessments.”

Arup did not respond to Byline Times’ request for comment.

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