Levelling up FARCE‘Whitehall-led Devolution is a Bureaucratic Nightmare – I know as I Spent Thousands Trying to Jump Through the Hoops’
Heeley Trust had proven they could transform their local area. Despite an overwhelming evidence base for their project, Whitehall said no.
Andy Jackson was running a Covid vaccine pop-up centre in Sheffield when the alert popped up: bids had opened to apply Levelling Up funding. Pots of cash totalling £1.7bn overall were up for grabs, for projects that could help revitalise “left behind” areas. If anyone could prove their track record, it was Heeley Trust.
The charity launched in 1997, with the smog of deindustrialisation in Sheffield still lingering. Steel had declined, and areas near former factories including a southern suburb of the city, Heeley, had followed suit.
Communities that were once prosperous and industrious had withered. “There was no plan, and there was land that wasn’t repurposed. It was derelict and grassed over. People were really fed up, with a decade of nothing happening. So local people said ‘we’ve had enough – we want to take this land on and do something positive’”, Andy tells me.
Andy, who was born and raised in this part of Sheffield, joined up with other concerned locals. They went door to door, signing up people from across Heeley to help design a new park. Once they’d successfully reclaimed the abandoned land, volunteers went on to plant 10,000 trees and 16,000 bulbs in a year.
By 2001, they had made a “big change” in the heart of the neighbourhood. Instead of dereliction, a beautiful environment that people had a stake in and direction over had emerged.
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That was the start – Day 1, as it were. But they had bigger plans. “You have to start to animate the space and create a community from that. So we launched festivals and events, theatre in the park – huge days bringing everyone together,” the Heeley Trust’s manager adds.
They sent newsletters to everyone – celebrating how the place was on the up. It was a declaration: “We’re not poor in the way people are saying. We are rich. We have no money, but we have talent and ideas. And we want power to do more,” Andy beams.
The council granted them a 125-year lease on 3.5 hectares of land – putting it into community ownership, with no maintenance funding from anywhere. “The day you stop cutting the grass, you’ve undone the work. So raising 125 years of funding to clear the littler, paint benches, repair damage – it’s a challenge,” Andy says. They looked for income. The buildings around the park were the answer.
“We said to the council: let us take on the [neighbouring] derelict buildings, bring life in, and charge rent to cover costs and contribute to the running of the park.”
The Grade II listed school buildings were utterly neglected, he says. They had an independent valuation of minus £3m. After ten years of negotiations, including re-writing their business plan several times, they got it. They rebuilt the site in 10 months.
After five years of using that building as a co-working hub and art studios, Covid came along. The Trust reworked itself as a community vaccination hub. That’s when Andy heard about the Levelling Up opportunity.
There was a golden ticket if you went through your MP. They’d done the structural surveys, and got quotes from contractors. They even had potential tenants booked in, waiting for the development to actually get started.
Thankfully their MP, Louise Haigh was supportive – and MP sponsorship was crucial to Levelling Up bids. They negotiated with Sheffield City Council, who had to approve the bids too. Then things started to get immensely complicated.
“There were so many institutional barriers. There was the need for the council to sign it off. We needed a Treasury Green Book assessment” – complex economic modelling by an economist, at a cost of thousands of pounds. They had to prove “land value uplift” calculations, assessing how much more the site would be worth if the works got funded.
All of this required outside help to complete it. The council was submitting three bids for this first round – and the Heeley Trust project for restoring more derelict buildings was one. They appointed consultants to help with their bids.
Thousands of pounds were spent on contractors – as well as countless in-house staff hours – to get the bid to the door. And then, it slammed shut. The council appeared to get cold feet, demanding more modelling and assurances about project risk, despite hundreds of pages of reports backing up the case. In Andy’s eyes, the requests were so onerous it effectively shut the bid down.
So that was it. After months of careful engagement and planning, the community group was chucked us out of the process.
2022 soon came around and the delayed bidding results were in. Andy Jackson hadn’t been “too upset” about missing out in Round 1. He thought Sheffield wouldn’t get any money. In the end, Sheffield was given £37m to redevelop brownfield land, while plans to cut journey times to and from London got funding.
It was an impetus to push the council for full support for its next bid in the second round of Levelling Up bidding. More than 520 bids were put in for the second round of the government’s £4.8bn Levelling Up Fund announced last March. They wanted projects that could be completed in just a year.
The plan was to completely redevelop a largely abandoned, heritage heart of the neighbourhood. Right at the heart of Heeley sits a massive Victorian school. Heeley Trust had already restored one building, and needed to do another two, plus renovate the Victorian chapel and acres of land. All would be refurbished to a high standard.
They had evidence to show they could do it. They’d won four RIBA architecture awards for Phase 1 restoring the old school building, and were looking at the rest of the site being at that level.
New bus stops, and landscaping for a new communal garden was part of the plans. Plus purchasing a GP practice to establish a new health and wellbeing centre, and working alongside the council to revive the original home of the John Ruskin art collection in the heart of Sheffield. In total, 50,000 sq feet of Grade II listed buildings were set to be renovated.
The income from the renovated buildings – home of new co-working spaces – would deliver the health centre, community festivals, and much more. Fully costed.
Heeley Trust went for it. “We had loads of support from our MP. The council really helped us in Round 2. It was the best funding bid I’ve ever written. Consultants were engaged. The council put money in to develop a Treasury Green Book case this time.”
They had economists come in to crunch the numbers. “We had to provide tons of stats – rents paid, churned through black box models…We learnt that for every pound going into the development, £2.46 came out in benefits to the economy and community,” Andy says.
It was one of the best cases of Gross Value Added the economist had ever seen, with other public infrastructure projects typically running more like £1.50 for every £1 investment. They were asking for £17.5m. The final assessment was that it would have a £56m positive impact on the local economy.
Whitehall Dither and Politics
They had to meet a “really tight” summer deadline. No such deadlines applied to Whitehall, where officials said they’d announce the results in the autumn. Autumn became winter, then Christmas passed.
Then at the end of January this year, the hammer blow landed. Nowhere in Yorkshire got any cash. Rishi Sunak paid more in Fixed Penalty Notices than Sheffield got. “The bulk of money in Round 2 was distributed across the South East and London,” was the feeling.
It’s not clear how much was spent on the two failed bids – despite their overwhelming business case. But Andy says the council must have spent tens of thousands of pounds on consultants.
Heeley Trust, for its part, spent reserves to pay for their experts, costing £15,000 plus VAT. Add the “labour at risk” on top – time Andy could have spent organising outreach events, or chasing up more likely funders, and you are again talking thousands of pounds lost.
When I spoke to Andy – fittingly after a conference on the need for real devolution away from Whitehall – he told me: “Everything they asked for was detailed and done…But we’ve still not had feedback on why we weren’t successful.”
It feels like “extremely political” decision-making, in his eyes. There have long been fears that party politics has got in the way of the top-down bidding process for Levelling Up cash. The SNP claimed £1.1 billion of the £1.6 billion total levelling-up funding in England was been awarded to areas where there is a Tory MP or a majority of Tory MPs. Conservatives claimed 45% of funding across two Levelling Up rounds went to areas held by opposition parties.
But the bigger picture of regional funding seems to show a clear party bias. Analysis published in the New Statesman last year found that constituents of Conservative MPs received £64 a head more from four major levelling-up funds than they would have done under another party.
“You can’t run the regeneration of an economy in this way. You need a plan, regional allocations, local voices involved, and distribution at scale everywhere – not some random gambling exercise. It painted a picture of how much more we need to do to really regrow our economy,” Andy Jackson tells me.
Heeley Trust are waiting for a meeting with the council to see what to do next. Round Three of the Levelling Up funding round is due – but bidders have to pledge to spend the cash by March 2025. It is a desperately tight timeframe to get a project of this scale effectively completed.
“Despite our ambition we’re not big enough to manage a contract that quickly. You’d have to be thinking about a single new-build project. One where planning is already in place, and the building just goes up. We were looking at a community-level, holistic systems approach. That’s the most effective way to do this.”
The March 2025 deadline for spending is very close to the last possible date for a general election – January 2025. “It’s just one of the many bizarre things about this,” Andy says.
Andy’s story is not unique. Councils in England have spent at least £27 million producing bids for levelling up funding, according to Freedom of Information requests from NationalWorld. But a massive 79% of bids ended in failure – they didn’t get the cash. “That is, in any grant funder’s terms, a failed project,” he tells me. “If you’re not giving out to more than 50% of applicants, your grant project is really failing.”
The natural conclusion? This way of doing regeneration doesn’t work. The answer is a different approach, argues the campaign group We’re Right Here, which is pushing for “community power” to be enshrined in regional funding decisions.
“Organisations like ours could transform neighbourhoods. But all the systems above us prevent us from doing it. They are working against us to stop us, not help us. We need a Community Power Act,” Andy says. It’s the key call of We’re Right Here, which has led him to become a prominent campaigner for the group. That – and the lived experience of dealing with a Whitehall machine that insists Levelling Up can only happen if officials in London say yes.
Responding to concerns about the Levelling Up bidding wars being a bureaucratic nightmare for many organisations, a government spokesperson told Byline Times: “Since the launch of the Levelling Up Fund, we have provided more than £3.8 billion of funding to support over 200 projects that will benefit millions of people across the whole United Kingdom.
“Our decision-making criteria, published last year, made clear that ministers could take into account other investment in local areas, including grants from the first round of the Fund, to encourage a spread of funding across more areas. Only when all bids had been received, and their quality known, could decisions be taken to achieve this.”
They added that the department aims to support bidders who were unsuccessful last time, “including by providing feedback, to refine their proposals and prepare for the next round.”
On claims of party political bias, ministers insist that all projects are subject to a “rigorous assessment process” under “robust, fair and transparent rules”.
But Will Brett, campaign director of We’re Right Here, said asking community organisations to spend their “scant resources” on bidding for competitive funding streams “makes a mockery of ‘levelling up’.”
He added: “It’s time for a big shift in where power lies, so that it’s local people – not civil servants in London – who get to decide how money is spent in their neighbourhood.“
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