I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Towns Fund.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing this debate. The United Kingdom is full of hard-working, innovative, entrepreneurial people. We are the fifth-biggest economy in the world, and we are a liberal, free, open and successful economy. A great number of my constituents have good jobs based in London, but lots do not, and many have been left behind, in a rich country like ours, even in good times of growth. It is therefore time to invest in our towns and cities that do not or cannot benefit from London. That is why all Members should welcome promises to level up and unleash the economic potential of towns, cities and rural places across the country. That is why all Members should welcome the towns fund.
The fund will invest £3.6 billion into places like Peterborough, Blackpool, Barrow, Torquay, Darlington, Norwich and Warrington. It will more than pay for itself by stimulating economic growth with a focus on regeneration, improved transport, better broadband connectivity, skills and culture. The plan is to unleash the economic potential of 101 towns and cities across the UK. The towns fund has the potential to change lives.
I want to illustrate the benefits of the towns fund by informing the House about how it will benefit Peterborough. The bid for investment in Peterborough is one of the first seven successful bids as part of phase 1. We have already had £1 million for a shovel-ready local growth project to support 14 parks across the city, but it will deliver nearly £23 million of investment for my city overall. Many other cities and bids are looking to Peterborough to see how we were successful. Where Peterborough leads, other towns and cities follow.
I pay tribute to Matthew Bradbury of the Nene Park Trust, the chair of the towns fund bid, Andy Starnes of CityFibre, the vice-chair, and all those who served on the towns fund board. That board includes councillors and officers from Peterborough City Council and me. I also serve on the board, and that is what makes the towns fund different. It is different not only because this Government believe in the economic potential of these towns and cities, but because Members of this House have been invited to be personally involved in the projects and personally associated with their success or, indeed, failure. We are accountable to the electorate and can hold Ministers to account.
Together with my hon. Friend the Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara), who represents the southern part of Peterborough, we have lobbied for and supported the bid from day 1. I am sure that is true for many other Members. The funding will create a new library and a cultural hub on Bridge Street and a centre for lifelong learning, as well as feed into the new skills and the technical university that we are building, bringing highly paid jobs back to our city centre. It will give the impetus for the new developments of the station quarter and north Westgate. It will pump money into Lincoln Road, a vibrant high street in Peterborough that just needs focus, investment and, dare I say it, a little bit of love.
In the words of one local restaurant owner, Zillur Hussain, the fund is a fresh start for Peterborough that builds on our natural advantages, as we are only 40 minutes from London on the main road and rail arteries. We have a history of manufacturing, engineering, science and technology, and we have a wonderful, hard-working, skilful population. This fund is the shot in the arm that will unleash our potential.
The fund will benefit communities across the country and Members across this House. It should not be a partisan political issue. It is a shame that some Opposition Members have sought to make it political, instead of welcoming investment in their constituencies, and I hope that does not happen in this debate.
As I understand it, 101 areas could benefit from that investment. If the Labour party had not ignored those towns and cities, perhaps it would still be representing them.
This fund has happened when the Government are tackling an unprecedented public health crisis. Covid-19 is the biggest challenge this country has faced since world war two. Some might have forgiven the Government if they had paused the initiative while they focused on the pandemic, but rather than doing that, they have powered ahead, giving hope and optimism to places such as Peterborough and helping communities to build back better as we overcome the pandemic.
This funding also includes the future high streets fund, which aims to renew town centres and high streets to make them more attractive places to visit, increasing footfall, driving growth and supporting local businesses. That is exactly what Lincoln Road, Westgate and other parts of Peterborough need. The pandemic has kept people away from the high street. People are eating takeaways and restaurant meals at home, and they are shopping online. My mobile phone boasts not just Deliveroo but, as a result of the pandemic and lockdown, Just Eat and Uber Eats. As convenient as that is, and as good as the hospitality in Peterborough has been at adapting, there is a real fear that hospitality and retail will suffer as we come out of the pandemic because people’s shopping and leisure habits have changed. That is why we need to think differently about town centres and high streets and make them a destination.
We need to create new, innovative high streets offering different things, such as pop-up shops, entertainment, interactive experiences, culture, leisure and mixed use including residential, as well as fun, safe and changing nightlife and hospitality. The towns fund is the catalyst for change, because private sector money and investment will follow, unlocking the potential of our towns and cities.
It is a message of hope, and it shows these communities that the Government and their local MPs have not forgotten them. Will the Minister remain committed to the plan? Will he confirm that there are chances for more towns and cities beyond the 101 already identified to submit bids for the future? Will he stress the importance of local MP engagement and ask all MPs from across the House to get on board with the towns fund and its potential to transform lives?
To conclude, I am all pumped up for Peterborough in 2021, ’22, ’23 and beyond. We have a new university coming, Fletton Quays and a new Government hub; the station quarter, a new cinema and Queensgate expansion is planned; and the Embankment will become an all-year-round destination—and now we have £23 million through the towns fund. We are making the decisions now that will guarantee our future health, wealth and happiness in the future. I am so excited that we are going to unleash our potential, but I am just as excited about this country’s potential, and as we level up and build back better from this pandemic, this is what the towns fund can deliver.
The three-minute time limit will now come into force. I would remind hon. Members who are participating virtually that a countdown clock will be visible on their screens. I do advise them to stick to that because we have a lot of people who want to contribute. Obviously, in the Chamber, there is the usual clock for Members to look at.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I look forward to this technology of the clock counting me down.
This is an important debate. Britain’s lop-sided economy has left many of our towns, in recent decades, feeling abandoned as we both centralise and deindustrialise our economy. Of course, we cannot halt economic progress, but we should never turn our backs on those held-back communities in the towns. We clearly need state intervention, but on a massive scale—a new Marshall plan. The towns fund simply does not hack it. Towns have been left behind by gigantic global capital flows driven by a new and even more remote phase of capitalism and by a political elite operating in the interests of capitalism, rather than of those communities.
I represent small towns and villages that at one time were at the very heart of the mighty Yorkshire coalfield. They helped create our wealth, heated our homes and powered our industries, but now too often they feel abandoned, especially as covid begins to impact more heavily on those same towns. We owe those communities a huge duty of solidarity. Large areas in my constituency—those great Yorkshire villages and towns such as Featherstone, Hemsworth, South Elmsall, Upton, South Kirkby, and the list goes on—are among the most deprived communities in the country, but not a penny has come to us from the towns fund.
Let us be honest, the financial allocation is inadequate, and much of it is anyway recycled from other spending programmes. Deprived communities are forced to compete against each other for a share of a fund that in any case is unfairly distributed. More than half the towns that get the money from the towns fund are not even in the most deprived category, and quite a lot of them just happen to be in areas of political interest to the governing party.
The distribution of financial resources and the location of economic growth are dictated largely by the whims of financial markets, leaving so many towns left behind, and then there is the apparently grubby gerrymandering of the fund itself, as I see it. It does not have to be like that. We do have the power to change things. Don’t say it can’t be done: look at how the last Labour Government used their power to intervene in the collapsing banking market. First, however, we would need to replace that part of the British establishment that serves the interests of big money rather than seeking to be its master. With a radical Government on their side and adequate funding, Britain’s towns can once again become the cradles of economic growth, cultural creativity and social justice.
It gives me great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Paul Bristow), who was very positive, and the not so positive hon. Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett).
I am sure that, across this House, we as Members of Parliament and, in part, representatives of our communities have as our driving aim and ambition the wish to leave our constituencies in a better, more prosperous and equal way than when we were first elected. I am one of the few MPs sitting in this House who has lost their seat at a general election and, fortuitously, regained that same seat subsequently. When one loses one’s seat, funnily enough one has plenty of time to reflect and think back to all one’s achievements, and to those issues or projects that had been delayed. When I lost in 2017, I was able to reflect on my record, and I am proud that I was able to say that Lincoln was a better, more connected, prosperous and equal community than when I was first elected in 2010. Our two universities continue to prosper, with Lincoln recently being granted its own medical school after I engaged with other organisations to promote its existence, initially in 2011. We also had direct, fast and regular train links to London, the now-complete Lincoln eastern bypass was under construction and the average worker had a higher wage and a lower tax bill than they did under a Labour Government.
Lincoln has prospered, and continues to prosper, with a Conservative Member of Parliament fighting its corner and a receptive Conservative Government, but we now have a further, new opportunity to ensure that our constituencies level up, flourish and provide employment, incomes and livelihoods for our constituents. I believe that Lincoln’s bid for the towns fund will do this and I hope that Government colleagues share my positivity for Lincoln’s towns fund application. I would like to take this opportunity to officially thank my fellow scouser and colleague, my right hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry), who, as a former Minister, procured this opportunity for the city that I am so proud, honoured and privileged to represent.
When people arrive and exit at Lincoln train station, with its ticket room plaque commemorating the official redevelopment and reopening, they are immediately greeted by the shell of a grand old hotel, the Barbican. It has unfortunately stood empty for well over a decade. If one of the projects in our bid is successful, it will be transformed into a production and maker hub for the creative industries. The space would enable the clustering and incubation of creative businesses and the establishment of a creative business network. This would be a distinctive, visible and high-quality offer in the heart of the city. I note that, as a landlord, the Lincolnshire Co-op is an incredibly commercial landlord and has steadfastly refused in over a decade to invest any of its finances into the site.
We also have a proposal for the urban regeneration of Tentercroft Street. This project will support the redevelopment of a strategic brownfield site, to create new workspace and city living in the heart of the city centre. But by far my favourite of the proposals is the bid for Wigford Way. Once a critical artery for our city centre businesses and central road network, Wigford Way is now underused due to changes in pedestrianisation and flows of traffic, following the improvements secured through funding during my early years as the Member of Parliament for both the high street and Brayford wharf level-crossing footbridges and the east-west link road, so it now offers an opportunity for centre development, or rather, to be reimagined to improve and reconnect distinctive quarters of our city.
For all those who live, work, visit and study in our beautiful, historic and well-loved city, I will always put Lincoln first.
The towns fund: great in theory, but in practice, not a lot, and it leaves out London, bringing accusations of gerrymandering. Announced by the last PM on a hunt for votes for her doomed EU withdrawal Bill, when there was another deadline looming, it was seen as a Brexit bribe to bring prosperity after we leave the EU. By the end of the year, an election was called, and it was clear that 60 out of the 61 lucky winners were in Tory target seats. A lot of them translated into gains, such as Newcastle-under-Lyme and Bishop Auckland.
The Public Accounts Committee noted how criteria for inclusion and adjudicating success were “vague”, while Professor Hanretty, giving evidence, went further, labelling it pork-barrelling based on party politics, not need. The remainder of it is a competitive bidding process, leaving towns, which are not a commonly understood unit of analysis, pitted against one other at a time when the country needs bringing together. Why not suburbs? Marginal Cheadle got, whereas nearby Didsbury did not. London suburbs, too, are blighted by all the guidance that was initially published—ageing population, reducing economic prosperity, high streets with reducing footfall. Ealing has a housing crisis, with 10,000 on the waiting list, and a social care crisis, yet our budget has been slashed by 64% since 2010—36p in every £1 it had—leaving huge holes, even with the covid extra. Every time there is another Government U-turn, there is more expenditure in this failed tiering experiment.
Yes, our capital generates enormous wealth, but we are never too far away from pockets of poverty. In this borough, Westminster, Church Street ward is, on some indexes, the most deprived in the country—it is certainly the most overcrowded. In East Acton and South Acton, the streets are definitely not paved with gold, yet London is completely ineligible. Food bank use has doubled in the last five years. It has 40% child poverty and pensioner poverty. The fastest-growing unemployment in the country is found in London.
Small beer and a drop in the ocean, compared with the revenue that we have lost from council coffers since 2010 and the EU structural funds that we will no longer get, will not cut it. Also, pitting the rest of the country against London—this demonising of our capital—is a dangerous policy. The only transparent thing about the towns fund is its naked politicking. It said that it would take the decisions away from Whitehall, but instead it has delivered them to Conservative campaign headquarters; the decision making is taking place there now, not in Whitehall. Perhaps the Secretary of State, when he is not scrapping with his pals to get money for his own patch, should stop his imagined war on the woke, because there is work to be done.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Paul Bristow) for securing this important debate. I speak to the House today as a proud member of the Burton town deal board. The Minister will have seen for himself the plans put forward by the board, which set out a clear vision for building on Burton-on-Trent’s unique strengths. The vision behind our recently submitted town investment plan is sound, and representatives from the public, private and voluntary sectors across Burton have worked hard to identify a programme of investment that will secure the town’s economic growth prospects.
The River Trent is a huge natural asset, and we must make better use of the opportunities it affords. Improving town centre living with key walking and cycling routes and improved riverside areas will offer a healthier environment to live in, as well as attracting visitors into the town. Individual projects have been identified, including bringing a regional learning hub to Burton that will provide opportunities for access to skills and training, offering residents a route to prosperity as well retaining and encouraging businesses to the area. By providing investment in Burton, this Government will ensure that our historic brewing town, full of heritage and natural attributes, has a resilient, better and brighter future ahead.
As I talk today about Burton, I that know my constituents in Uttoxeter will be asking, “What about us?” Burton has its chance to secure funding for its town investment plan, but let me tell the Minister about the potential that Uttoxeter offers. We must seize the regeneration opportunities that Uttoxeter holds. We must seize the chance to deliver a bold and creative vision that offers not just more housing—which I know from recent correspondence is not what residents want—but the chance to create a new future and purpose for this historic market town. Let us take the opportunity to regenerate the brownfield sites and high streets with community spaces, leisure and social facilities and access to expanded healthcare facilities. Uttoxeter has a wonderful GP—he is one of many—and Dr David Atherton’s contribution to our vaccine roll-out alone should afford him the chance of a bigger, brighter, more accessible practice.
I should like to make just one more request on behalf of both Burton and Uttoxeter, and that is to deliver the project B upgrade to the A50 that has been promised. This junction upgrade at heart of the midlands manufacturing corridor would not only hugely benefit residents and visitors to Burton and Uttoxeter but unlock enterprise opportunities right across the region, stimulate growth and development and provide a vital contribution to a well-functioning and highly productive economy.
Like many towns, St Helens has been through good times and bad. We were at the heart of the industrial revolution when we were home to the first industrial canal, and we remain the home of glass. The security glass in the Chamber was produced in St Helens. We are also the home town of the best rugby league team in the country, which I make no apology for mentioning once again. We are a proud town with a welcoming community, yet there is no denying that the past decade has been tough for the town. The impact of austerity is still felt, and the last year has made things worse. The last year has thrown a brick through an already shattered window.
There are problems with the fund, particularly with transparency and with how fairly it is being distributed, but at its heart it is a good thing and the right thing to do. The UK has the most regionally unbalanced economy in Europe, and it is not sustainable to continue like this. Even Germany, which spent the majority of my lifetime as two separate countries, the eastern part of which suffered from poverty and severe economic difficulties, has less inequality than Britain today.
People in towns in the north have felt abandoned and forgotten for too long, and rightly so. The next few years present both challenges and opportunities. The economic woes that our town and many others have experienced will hasten changes that were already happening. The world and the economy are changing, and we must adapt with it. The recovery from this crisis will be green, and it will be global. It must and will bring good-paying, high-skilled jobs to the areas that need them.
I have had the honour of sitting on St Helens town deal board. Last week, we finalised and submitted our proposal. Being green and being global is at the heart of it. The centrepiece of our bid is Glass Futures, a research and development facility. Glass Futures will work with the global glass industry and supply chain. It will bridge the gap between research and development and implementation. As our economy recovers in a green and global way, glass will be the low-carbon global material of choice. Glass is more than just windows. In fact, I am seen today through a piece of glass that almost every screen contains. The whole country has spent the past year looking at friends and family through sheets of glass in their phones or computer screens.
The global centre of excellence in the proposal will put St Helens at the heart of the global glass industry, and we ask the Government to support this as part of the global Britain strategy. A few months ago, I was pleased to welcome the Secretary of State to attend our town board to hear about our proposals. As an MP, I cover two boroughs, St Helens and Knowsley, both of which deserve and need investment. I urge the Minister to fight on our behalf and on behalf of all the towns in the country, to get the funding needed, so that all towns can get their fair share of investment.
As the first Conservative MP for Blyth Valley, I have been given the opportunity to help breathe life into my hometown, which has been neglected for many decades. Having lived in Blyth all my life, I have seen at first hand the decay and abandonment that the town centre has experienced, despite its great potential. I was delighted when the town centre was awarded £11.12 million of funding from the future high streets fund, to allow for much-needed investment and improvement.
The towns fund provides limitless opportunities for regions across the country to unleash their full potential, while delivering on the Government’s agenda to level up. Such investment has the capacity to dramatically improve, regenerate and unite towns and communities across this wonderful country of ours. In Blyth, the funding will support the revitalisation of Blyth marketplace and Bridge Street by providing new leisure and cultural facilities at the heart of the town centre. As part of the recovery from the pandemic, the announcement on 25 September that shovel-ready projects in the constituency will be given a £750,000 boost was particularly welcome. I am extremely pleased that major work will start soon on improving Bowes Street, which will immediately make a real difference to the town.
In addition, the £1.5 million of funding confirmed for the reopening of the Northumberland rail line will transform the town centre into a flourishing, prosperous and vibrant one. This allocation of funding is a great testament to those at the heart of the community who show great resolve and overcome the challenges we face, working together, and I am confident that Blyth will have a bright and prosperous future for generations to come.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Blyth Valley (Ian Levy) in this important debate. The Government have talked a good game about levelling up, but it is no more than a slogan for areas like Barnsley. The Labour party supports funding for our towns, but it is crucial that it is done transparently and fairly. Sixty out of the 61 areas that were allocated money by Ministers from the towns fund were in Conservative-held or Conservative target seats. By anyone’s standards, that is not a fair approach. Labour councils have shouldered the pain of cuts to local government over the last decade. Barnsley Council has had the biggest cuts in the country, and that has had a huge knock-on effect on local services, from adult social care to road maintenance and bus services.
A recent report by the Coalfields Regeneration Trust on the impact of coronavirus on older industrial Britain concluded that towns and communities like Barnsley were
“lagging behind before the crisis”
and will therefore find it harder to recover. That is why the Government need to invest in training and skills, rethink cuts to universal credit, which has provided a lifeline for many in my community, and make sure that young people are given access to education, whatever their postcode is.
The pandemic is not a great leveller. As I said in my first speech in this place,
“not all communities are equal”—[Official Report, 12 July 2017; Vol. 627, c. 347.]
and this crisis has further highlighted inequalities. The UK has had the worst recession of any major economy. The Government must now take a different approach: secure our jobs, support our high streets and strengthen our communities through investments that deliver for people in every area, not just those represented by Members on the Government Benches.
I welcome this debate and thank my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Paul Bristow) and the Government for supporting the town fund and Harlow. Harlow has been my home for 20 years. It is a town of achievement, aspiration, community and opportunity. Although Harlow may not yet have enormous reserves of economic capital, it has enough social and cultural capital to fill any vault in any bank.
I wish to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the Government for the recent investments in our town. Harlow has received £50 million for the M11 junction 7A, hundreds of millions for our new Harlow hospital, and major investment for our enterprise zone. I am proud to note that Harlow College is one of the finest colleges in the country, and Harlow is on its way to becoming the skills capital of the east of England, following a recent £3 million upgrade for T-level delivery and the construction of the £12 million advanced manufacturing centre. I welcome the fact that the Government have already committed £300 million to the creation of Public Health England’s science campus in Harlow, in anticipation of PHE’s expected move. I look forward to the Government confirming the funding for the project in the next spending statement.
Despite all that, Harlow remains the second most-deprived area in Essex. It is essential that that is recognised in the Government’s levelling-up agenda. Part of the town centre is in a real state of disrepair, plagued by antisocial behaviour. Our neighbourhood centres are in desperate need of regeneration. Harlow’s towns fund bid sets out to remedy such problems and address the challenges posed by ageing infrastructure, through town centre improvements; the redevelopment of Staple Tye neighbourhood centre; measures to increase connectivity at the enterprise zone; and investment in a new institute of technology.
Sadly, we lost out on £10.4 million from the future high streets fund because the Government procurement letter stated that Harlow Council’s bid
“did not meet stringent criteria on value for money for the taxpayer”.
The towns fund bid is a chance to make up for that loss. It will be the thread that ties together all the Government’s recent investments in Harlow. The town centre must be fit for purpose to support economic growth and social capital and make Harlow a place that offers community, security and prosperity for all our citizens—a town that aspirational people want to move to and live in.
I give special thanks to the Minister, who is responsible for the towns fund, all members of the Harlow growth board, the chief executive of Harlow Council and the senior officers who are working day and night to make sure the bid succeeds. I hope that, this time, our bid will be a success and our town will get the much needed funding that it deserves.
Castleford has put in a bid to the towns fund, and I have been working with Wakefield Council, community organisations and local businesses to draw up plans for badly needed investment here in our town; to restore some of the cuts in investment and jobs we have had over the past 10 years; to regenerate our town centre and reconnect with our riverside; and to build on our community strengths and community pride.
We want not only to restore our riverside—the River Aire runs straight past the mill here and we want people to be able to enjoy it again—but to boost Henry Moore Square in the town centre; support local jobs; restore Kingdom Hall, one of the oldest buildings in the town centre; and invest in Queen’s Mill, where the old Allinson’s flour mill has been taken over by the Castleford Heritage Trust, a local community organisation that has made it the community hub, not only supporting residents during the covid crisis but growing small businesses as well as new jobs and opportunities.
We want to boost local skills, working with the Castleford Tigers Foundation to set up a new adult skills centre, because in our town the number of adults in training and education has halved over recent years as adult skills budgets have been cut. That is shocking when we need those skills to boost the jobs of the future. Too often, our industrial jobs and proud heritage have been hit and we have not had the investment for the new jobs of the future.
I urge Ministers to support not only Castleford’s bid but all our towns, because the problem with the Government’s approach is that the towns fund simply does not go far enough. I have been calling for investment in our towns for many years, as part of the Labour towns campaign, because over the past 10 years the rate of jobs growth in our towns has been half the rate in our cites, the rate of business growth in our towns has been half the rate in our cities, and austerity has hit our towns much harder than our cities. We have lost more public services and seen more services shrink back under 10 years of Conservative Government austerity.
In Yorkshire and the Humber, 16 towns were chosen for the towns fund. The first eight were those that ranked most strongly against independent criteria on skills need, investment need and deprivation. Rightly, Castleford was chosen in that top eight, but Knottingley was ninth on the list and was left out. Instead, the Government chose to invest in towns that did not have the same level of skills need or deprivation and that had not seen the same scale of cuts—Knottingley has been one of the hardest hit by austerity over the past 10 years, losing its library, sports centre and investment in our town. We need a chance for Knottingley to gets its share of investment, and for Normanton and Pontefract to get their share too. We need a comprehensive approach, not just a towns fund.
We will take no lectures from the Labour party, which had 13 years in power and did absolutely nothing to invest in any meaningful way in our towns across the north of England.
I very much welcome the bids submitted by the two towns that cover my constituency, Scunthorpe and Goole. I will leave it to my near neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Holly Mumby-Croft), to talk about that town’s bid, but I would like to speak about the Goole bid. I thank Joseph Richardson, who has chaired our board here in Goole, and all the board members. I give a particular shout-out to Peter Campey from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government—we are not supposed to name officials—for his wise counsel throughout.
As the Minister will see, our bid covers digital, town centre regeneration, leisure improvements, connectivity and, of course, a flood protection project. With regard to revenue, I ask him to be generous when he looks at our bid, particularly with reference to our proposal for the Goole to Leeds line, which of course would benefit a number of constituencies.
For those who do not know Goole, we are a town and port in the north of England. It was created as a company town about 200 years ago, and my ancestors were some of the first people to move to it. We face many of the issues that sadly are common to many northern towns that have missed out on regeneration in recent decades. When I was elected 10 years ago, we had very high youth unemployment, and unemployment that was well above the national average. Although we are now below that, there are still considerable issues with skilling people up to take many of the jobs being created locally.
However, we have had a lot of good news in recent years, not least of which is the massive investment by Siemens, which is busy constructing a rail factory here that will produce the trains for the London underground. There is also huge investment from Croda, and that has happened with Government support. However, those who come to Goole will still see a hollowed-out town centre, as can be seen in many such towns. While we have improvements in educational standards, big investment coming in and hundreds of new homes being built, the town centre looks like it is still in decline, as is common across the country.
That is why the towns fund is so important. That is why it is so vital that as many of these bids that have been submitted are granted by the Government. I can see the Minister almost nodding. I am sure that he will look kindly on Goole’s bid, because although we have good stuff going on here, we still have considerable challenges in the town centre and with our college, the closure of which has just been announced. I hope that he will continue the investment that Goole has received in recent years and generously approve the bid that has been submitted.
The towns fund might be a good idea, but the lack of transparency in decision making has led to understandable concerns about the impartiality of the process, and from what I have seen of it in the Tees valley, those concerns are well founded.
In December, I wrote to the Secretary of State about Billingham, soon to be the home of Novavax vaccine manufacture. The town is home to 35,000 proud Teessiders as well as the Billingham Forum, which is a huge sports and theatre venue including pools, gyms and an ice rink. The town is a cultural hub, but it desperately needs help to further develop. As the singer of Maxïmo Park, Billingham-born Paul Smith, sings, it is
“where industrial tunnels were our fairytale castles”.
In short, it is a town bursting with potential.
Stockton-on-Tees Borough Council approached the Government to request that Billingham be included in the cohort of towns eligible to bid for funds, but it was refused. Back in October, Billingham councillors wrote to the Secretary of State asking why other Tees towns such as Thornaby in Stockton South, with a Tory MP, were fortunate enough to have been included in the selection of the first 100 towns for the fund when Billingham was not, even though it clearly fits the criteria every bit as well, if not more so, than Thornaby—although rest assured that we celebrate with the people of Thornaby that they do have the investment that they need. The decision led to confusion and concern locally that could have easily been put to bed if Ministers had responded to the request from the Billingham councillors to explain why their town had been passed over. Instead, the Minister fobbed off the councillors’ request for information and did not even engage with their concerns.
I followed up with my own letter, which was responded to, but with only slightly more information. It said that Billingham will get the chance to apply to the £300 million levelling-up fund, which has been designated for a towns fund competition. I personally find this quite astonishing. If the Government had sufficient information to select the first 100 towns that were eligible for a deal, why do we have to have more wasteful bidding processes that pit deprived communities against each other for scraps from the Government’s table? Why can the Government not use existing data and provide investment now—and cut out the middleman, saving our councils time and money in doing so?
It does not matter what money is being dished out these days by the Government: whether it is to the NHS, to councils or for town centres—Ministers are quite happy, and not even embarrassed, to pass over some areas and favour their own. It is time for fairness in the system; time for real, true levelling up and proper resources; and time for towns like Billingham to get the support that they need.
We promised to level up towns like Scunthorpe, and the £3.6 billion towns fund provides just the opportunity to make some of the meaningful, real-life differences that we have talked about before in this Chamber. We have a Conservative council in North Lincs. I served on it for five years. I know that it is used to getting the absolute most from every single pound that it has available to it. We are not backward in coming forward in Scunthorpe, and we have already secured future high streets funding of over £10 million, but there is more to be done.
I have lived in the Scunthorpe area all my life. I love my home town and I want our young people, many of whom I have met over the past year, to have opportunities and jobs that mean they want to stay close to home too. Scunthorpe is a great place to live, to build a family and to grow a business, and we can make it even better. In addition to this, our area has applied for free port status. Connectivity is another of our strengths, and it will amplify the returns of a towns fund investment. Situated south of the Humber, we are a strategic mid-point between Immingham dock, Humberside airport, Hull, Lincoln, Grimsby and Doncaster.
As a region, we are really ambitious. The Minister will see that our towns fund proposals bring to life the Government’s levelling-up goals. Under the diligent chairmanship of Mary Stewart, the board has listened to residents’ views, and in true northern style we have eked out the best possible value we feel we can get for our area. These proposals will deliver real bang for our buck. I hope that the Minister will share my enthusiasm both for the projects and for my home town.
Of course we must and we will continue to celebrate our world-class steelmaking and our proud industrial heritage. However, we also recognise the importance of resilience and industry diversification. This includes the delivery of an advanced manufacturing park, the creation of a new cultural arts and heritage offer in our urban centre, and sustainable, lifelong integration of skills.
Through the formidable business team led by Lesley Potts, we have seen our local council demonstrate their ability to deliver these projects, time and time again. We are a really safe pair of hands for the towns fund. We are genuinely ambitious for our area, and look forward to working with the Government on the towns fund to deliver for local people.
Before I call Charlotte Nichols, I will inform everybody how the rest of the afternoon is going to go. At 4.38, I will call Patricia Gibson to wind up for six minutes, then Steve Reed at 4.44 for eight minutes, and then Luke Hall at 4.52 for eight minutes. We are grateful to Paul for forgoing his last two minutes at the end of the debate.
Every one of us in this House wants to see investment in our constituents and our communities, particularly after a decade of Tory-imposed austerity, so I welcome the £22 million that has been allocated to Warrington from the fund. As part of the town deal board, I pay special thanks to all the stakeholders and officers of Warrington Borough Council for drawing together this successful bid. But—you knew that there would be a “but”, Mr Deputy Speaker—this is not a sustainable alternative to proper, long-term funding of our towns and their needs, and cannot and should not be sold as such by the Government.
As has already been mentioned, the past 10 years have seen core funding for local authorities cut by £15 billion, and our councils are struggling even more with the understandable impact of covid on their income streams and spending expectations, which the LGA estimates will be a further £2.6 billion. In comparison, the towns fund programme replaces only a fifth of the shortfall. We cannot expect our towns to thrive, as I would like to see, if our funding is stripped to the bone and sometimes the marrow, and we are left hoping for a special handout from Westminster once a decade. How does that assist long-term planning, or the development of sustainable local economies? We need a more holistic approach.
In Warrington, I want the certainty of a long-overdue new hospital Bill. I want assurances that there will be funding for the restoration and redevelopment of local leisure and library facilities, including Culcheth Community Campus and Padgate library. Above all, I want a guarantee that Warrington Borough Council will be reimbursed for the moneys it has had to spend because of the pandemic, or else all the work that has gone into this bid will be fatally undermined. I want towns such as mine to be self-sustaining and able to offer opportunities for young people and well-paid jobs so that they become hubs of prosperity, rather than being emptied out. We in Warrington benefit greatly from the high-skilled and highly rewarded employment opportunities provided by the nuclear industry. I want the Government to do more to deliver the next generation of new nuclear, which will provide more such quality prospects in Warrington and elsewhere, and to commit to an industrial strategy that makes levelling up the north-west about deeds, not words.
In his response to today’s debate, I hope the Minister will set out how he will judge the success of the towns fund, and how he will ensure that continuous financial support for towns is restored, rather than acting as though we should be grateful for a chance to bid for funding in a once-in-a-decade competition.
Over £129 million of Government funding has been pumped into Blackpool since my election, including £39.5 million from the towns fund—the highest single amount awarded to any town in England. I place on record my sincere thanks to the Government for the extraordinary level of funding that Blackpool has received, something never before witnessed on this scale. I know it will make a real and sustained difference to the businesses and residents I represent.
It is fantastic to see that despite grappling with covid-19 and the challenges it brings, the Government are committed to levelling up and ensuring that constituencies such as mine will not be left behind. The £39.5 million town deal is being used to fund regeneration projects across my constituency, as well to lever in private investment for new development. Most notably, the money allocated to the central development project will bring £300 million-worth of private investment into Blackpool and deliver more than 1,000 new jobs. Our famous illuminations, which are enjoyed by almost 4 million visitors every year, will also receive an upgrade thanks to the towns fund.
Unfortunately, although we received millions in our town deal and from the getting building fund, Blackpool did not receive the expected grants from the future high streets fund. Receiving a town deal is, of course, independent of any decision on the future high streets fund, and the decision not to approve any of these schemes was because of deficiencies in the bid from Blackpool Council. It is disappointing to say the least that my local authority was unable to satisfy the bid criteria laid down by the Department, and local residents will rightly feel disheartened that Blackpool has missed out as a consequence.
In that regard, I welcome the fact that the new levelling-up fund requires direct input from Members of Parliament. In my constituency, there is widespread support for reopening Blackpool airport, for commercial passengers flights and for a new rail loop to increase train services. Those proposals have received lukewarm support at best from Blackpool Council but would provide a huge boost to the local economy, by creating jobs, increasing tourism and securing investment. The levelling-up fund provides a vital opportunity for Members to submit proposals that attract local support in instances such as these, where there is potentially a lack of local authority co-operation. So many people are predicting that once the pandemic is over there will be a rise in domestic tourism, and thanks to Government funding supercharging regeneration in Blackpool, we will be able to take advantage.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for giving me an opportunity to speak in this debate. It has been fantastic to hear the stories of how the towns fund has helped individual town centres, and I am pleased for those communities that have seen a boost from the fund. Members will know that the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee, of which I am a member, have expressed doubts about the transparency of the decision making relating to the fund’s distribution. I do not want to reiterate these concerns, as they have been expanded on by various Members in this debate, but I note that the approach of selecting certain town centres for funding while excluding others is bound to lead to inequalities. Town centres that could have benefited from funding will miss out. The hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) made an excellent point about London suburbs, and obviously I, too represent one. There are lots of opportunities in London’s suburbs for levelling up, not least now that we are seeing less commuting, and lots of town centres will be looking for funds to revive, to help those who are working from home more often.
In the interim, our town centres have had to weather the unprecedented economic blow of the pandemic lockdown and a further decimation of the retail industry. Once the restrictions are lifted, there will be an urgent need to make a substantial economic offer to town centre businesses, not just to help revive them, but to provide jobs, and to deliver local goods and services, and, most importantly, public spaces, where local people can come together and meet each other. It is those informal meetings that we are all missing out on during lockdown. All our town centres will need assistance to bounce back from this crisis, so I call on the Government to take measures that will support all our communities, and abandon this winners and losers approach that we have seen with the allocation of funds from this towns fund.
The need to review our approach to business rates has been aired many times in this Chamber, and I hope we will hear more on it in due course, in order to level the playing field between physical and digital businesses. Similarly, I would like to see a change in the way in which commercial leases are granted and an abolition of upward-only rent reviews. I have heard that ask from many, many businesses in the past year. We should also reform local authority funding to give all councils more money to spend on investing in their own town centres. There are great opportunities for our retail and hospitality sectors, and our cultural organisations, once the lockdown restrictions are lifted, and they will bring new employment to every part of the UK. I urge the Government to put the investment necessary into those sectors to help them all recover from the current downturn.
I am absolutely delighted to be able to say a few words about the Bridgwater town fund. Good ideas are always the simplest and this idea is absolutely terrific. It is working and it is working well. The chance to bring in brand new schemes to the benefit of the whole Bridgwater area has been put together by some of the best people in our community. It is like winning the lottery and then doing something very constructive with it. It showcases the imagination of the folk who know what they are doing and love the town. I am proud to play a small part in the town board. I was asked to join: the rules of the board insist that local MPs, parish councils, town councils and all sorts of tiers of government take part in the process. I pay enormous tribute to Sedgemoor District Council and Bridgwater Town Council, which have been marvellous.
Obviously, the people who understand this place and work in the town are invaluable. They are given seats at the table from the word go—community groups, businesses small and large, and the enterprise partnership. The Government rightly wanted to use local brainwaves to start things moving. The expertise of Bridgwater Town Council and Sedgemoor District Council is vital. They know how to make things work. We just have to look at Hinkley. If I have a niggle, it is the presence of Somerset County Council on the board. I pay tribute to Fiona McMillan who has to put up with an enormous amount as the chairman.
We could try to measure Somerset’s contribution to the Bridgwater Town Council with a very powerful microscope —it is invisible. Somerset County Council has no role to play. It is insignificant, incompetent, and quickly round the corner with public money. Many people think that Somerset has been spending Government covid grants on other things, never mind this. Its book-keeping might well have been invented by Dickens’s dodgy character Fagin—as in “You’ve got to pick a pocket or two.” I do not trust it, and I am not alone.
Let me give an up-to-the minute example. We learned today, thanks to the local news, that the county council wants to spend £3 million on a solar plant in Bridgwater. That is an enormous amount of money for a council with a debt worth hundreds of millions of pounds. It is no wonder that people wonder where it got the cash. Any sensible county council would have told Bridgwater Town Council and Sedgemoor District Council all about this in advance, but not this county council. It has nothing constructive to add to the towns fund and it cannot even be bothered to consult. That really says it all. We must look at changing that part of the rules and the Minister needs to look at this carefully.
I will say that, in Bridgwater, we have provided not only Hinkley, but one of the largest distribution centres, Morrisons, Wisemans, Mulberry Handbags, and Junction 24, the huge auction centre. We are doing our job and that towns fund has added to that. It has given us the jam, the cream on the cake. I tell you this, Mr Deputy Speaker, we are going from strength to strength and King Alfred would be proud.
As someone who has served as a councillor for nearly 15 years, I have a strong interest in local government funding. Let me start by saying that no Labour MP will oppose greater funding for local authorities because we recognise and value the vital work that they do. I thank all those at Durham County Council who have worked tirelessly during this pandemic to keep key services running.
However, to call the towns fund scheme flawed would be an understatement. From the inadequately low level of funding, to the complete lack of transparency and fairness in its allocation, the scheme looks like yet another scandal overseen by the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government.
The towns fund is essentially a sticking plaster over the gaping wound that is the catastrophic cuts to local authority funding under successive Conservative Governments. The £3.6 billion fund is simply a drop in the ocean compared with the estimated £15 billion of cuts to local authorities over the past decade. Conservative Governments have repeatedly slashed funding for key services, while somehow expecting people to be grateful for modest increases. On top of this, the Government used a scattergun approach to selecting recipients, with some towns receiving funding, but with hundreds more left without. Surely the purpose of the levelling-up agenda is to reduce inequality and to increase life chances across regions, not to extend an existing postcode lottery when it comes to local authority resources. I fear that this is just the latest example of levelling-up for the Conservatives as a catchy, yet meaningless slogan that they do not truly understand.
Like many people, I was disgusted to see that Newark, in the Secretary of State’s constituency, has been selected for £25 million of funding, apparently to renovate a section of a castle. I mean no disrespect to the people of Newark, but it is a fact that it is only 270th on the list of the most deprived towns in the country—just think about what the more in need towns could have done with that money. Can any MP on the Government Benches say, hand on heart, that they are comfortable with that decision?
Funding for local authorities should be allocated fairly and transparently, with the money going to where it is needed most. Sadly, the Secretary of State has deliberately mishandled the towns fund to the extent that it fails these tests. While we could have been discussing a successful scheme, we are instead left debating yet another scandal.
I welcome the Government’s interest and their recognition of the importance of Royal Leamington Spa to be a recipient of potentially £10 million. As an important sub-regional shopping centre, it is a vital part of the region’s economy and quality of life, so let me praise the council officers at Warwick District Council for the quality of their original submission and the work they have done since in refining the proposals against a reduced contribution proposed by the Government. That said, £10 million is a sound amount for them to work with, and I hope it can do much to address the air quality in the town, highlighted by the World Health Organisation as an issue, while revitalising the commercial centre more widely.
However, let me cut to the chase. Over the past decade the Government have cut £15 billion from local authorities across the UK, yet handed back just £3.6 billion to some towns which they invited to bid for moneys. Members will know that back in October I questioned the Prime Minister—did I have the guts, he asked me—about how it could be that the Secretary of State could approve tens of millions of pounds for his Minister and his constituency town of Darwen, while that Minister could return the favour and approve tens of millions of pounds for the Secretary of State’s constituency town of Newark—beyond belief. But how were the 101 towns selected in the first instance? Surely, if the Government were honest in their claim to level up, they would have allocated the moneys to the most deprived communities across England, but they have not. In the past year, we have heard many cases of the Government using algorithms, or more often malgorithms, but this is back-of-a-fag-packetithm. While Housing, Communities and Local Government officials may have recommended that the Government did one thing—namely, allocate funds to the most deserving communities—instead the Secretary of State and Ministers allocated moneys to towns in the lowest priority category.
It is also worth noting that the Government chose to allocate by region, not need, so the north and the midlands were disadvantaged by their political ploys. How else could Bournemouth benefit but, shockingly, South Shields be left off? Both are seaside towns, but I think I know which is in greater need of the funding. It is something Harry Redknapp would have appreciated more than most. I will not even go into Cheadle. While Big Ben no longer bongs, this Government bung, and they are doing it on an industrial scale. A simple analysis of the towns that have received moneys underlines the political tactics laid bare. Certainly the timing of the announcement, in the last few weeks before the last general election, might give us a clue. It was carefully targeted at marginal seats. Interestingly, the impartial cross-party Public Accounts Committee concluded in its investigation that the selection process was not impartial. It took evidence from Christopher Hanretty, a professor of politics at Royal Holloway, who said that
“the process by which towns were invited to bid for money from the Towns Fund was driven by party-political electoral advantage”,
riding roughshod over any pretence to be levelling up this country. Any section 151 officer in a council would be sacked if they acted like this.
Any impartial observer will see this for what it is, and certainly the public do. It is grubby government of the worst order.
I should declare an interest as a member of the Middlesbrough town deal board, of which I am very proud to be a part.
The towns fund is a great Conservative policy, targeting investment at proud communities that have not shared equally in our country’s success. It is a core part of levelling up—improving facilities, enhancing economic opportunity, unlocking private sector investment and boosting pride in place. We all want to have towns to be proud of. In the Tees Valley, that is no different for Middlesbrough, Thornaby, Hartlepool, Darlington or Redcar, all of which were invited to bid into the programme.
In my area, so much is going on locally to be positive about, from our free port bid—to be submitted shortly—to Teesside airport being saved and the regeneration of the Teesworks sites at Redcar by our Mayor, Ben Houchen. Indeed, only last week we had the wonderful news about the new Teesside vaccine against coronavirus. The only thing locally that is not positive is the Labour party. Earlier in the debate, we heard the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) complaining about Stockton being disadvantaged, but Stockton received £16.5 million from the future high streets fund and Thornaby, as we heard, has its own town deal bid under way. So it is just nonsense to try to pretend that his borough is being disadvantaged.
Frankly, I want to be more positive. I pay tribute to all the council officers and business leaders giving their time and expertise to their local bids. In particular, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Jacob Young), who has been at the heart of the bid by his town; he cannot speak in this debate because of his role as a Parliamentary Private Secretary.
There is a lot for us to be excited about. We have £3.6 billion being invested—in a process approved by the independent civil service—to provide a major boost for left-behind communities like my home town. Helping the left behind used to be what the Labour party was all about; as it is, it is the Conservatives who are getting on with that job, and I am very proud of that. I am very grateful for the £20 million of future high streets funding announced in December for Middlesbrough and Loftus. I urge Ministers to show all possible speed in determining the outcome of Middlesbrough’s town deal bid, so that we can make our town a better place to live and work.
Looking ahead, I would be grateful if the Minister in his remarks will advise on where we stand on potential future competitive rounds of bidding for the towns fund and the future high streets fund, because that will make a massive difference to a number of communities. I think of places in my constituency such as Guisborough or Brotton, both of which have exciting proposals, which could be unlocked with the support of that fund. That is the kind of initiative we need to see more of. It is time we had less negativity from the Opposition Benches about us putting levelling up into practice, so that we can all move forward as one country, overcome the challenges of covid and build a better Britain for all of us.
I welcome the opportunity to debate the towns fund, because transparency and accountability are vital at all times, in particular when we are talking about a process that has largely been discredited due to the way in which the fund has been handed out so far. The priority to support town centres is undoubtedly the right one, but the process of deciding where that money is spent so far has undoubtedly been the wrong one.
I have consistently talked about the importance of the high street. So many people want to have pride in their local town and to see it thriving, and the towns fund is one clear way of realising that ambition. However, is that not something that every town should have the chance to benefit from? Should not that fund be distributed fairly, giving everyone a slice of the pie? Should not we be empowering local communities to choose their own priorities, rather than making them jump through multiple hoops in a competitive bidding process that is neither fair nor transparent?
What about other funds? When will we see the new version of the shared prosperity fund? We have left the EU, so we should have had that oven-ready to go a long time ago. Communities cannot wait while another complex set of opaque bidding procedures are cooked up.
My town centre, Ellesmere Port, is struggling. It has been struggling for a long time now. As in many other towns, the rise of the internet and changes in shopping habits, accelerated by the pandemic, have led to shops closing down, sadly on an almost weekly basis. So we would welcome cash from the towns fund, but for it to be a truly transformative project, it needs to address not just the symptoms of decline, but the causes.
Where are the plans to tackle the massive disparities between the north and south, in employment opportunities, earnings and life expectancy? Why do so many young people feel they have to leave where they live and move to a city just to get a foot on the ladder? It is a scandal that where people are born and who they are born to are still the biggest determinants of their life chances. That is what this fund should be looking at, not at tarting up 12th-century gatehouses. Where has the money been spent so far? My research indicates that more than 80% of the towns fund cash to date has gone on management consultants—that is hardly the transformation we were hoping to see.
Power flows towards London and wealth flows upwards into the hands of the elite. A Westminster handout on Westminster terms, with Westminster priorities in mind, will not change that. For too long, people have felt left behind and held back by a system that does not work for them. People already feel that they do not have the power to take decisions about the most important things in their lives: whether a local hospital should stay open, where a new school might go, or even how often the buses run. To empower local communities, we need a different approach—no more crumbs from the table. We do not want divisive, politically motivated, short-term fixes that only have the electoral cycle in mind. We need a new, long-term approach that actually attempts to tackle the underlying issues, and one that empowers and enables our local communities by giving them the responsibility, the power and the resources to shape their own futures, allowing them finally to take back control.
I have long believed in local government, and I hope that we can come to understand devolution as not merely meaning local administration—being given permission by the centre—and instead move towards local politicians being accountable to the electorate for the decisions they take locally, rather than to Whitehall to the current extent.
People often reference Lord Heseltine when it comes to localism, but I was always concerned that that vision had too much in it of local leaders coming down to London and essentially pleading with Ministers for funding. Ministers and civil servants cannot know the situation as well as those elected to represent their town. The devolution all-party parliamentary group, which I chair, has carried out a detailed inquiry into the importance of devolution, to be published fairly soon. Regeneration policy is a key part of it, and the report suggests a way forward for devolution and highlights some areas of blockage in the process that central Government may have inadvertently caused over many Administrations. However, those are thoughts for the future, and they do not mean for a split second within our current way of working that towns fund announcements by the Government are not welcome. It is the absolute opposite.
Having been the founder of an LEP, a county councillor, and even an MEP focused on regional development, I commend the vision and determination of those supporting regeneration in Northampton, both nationally and locally. We stand on the shoulders of some forceful advocates, like my friend and predecessor the late Brian Binley, but even so Northampton has suffered from a lack of investment in recent years. That is why the announcement of Northampton Forward’s successful bid for over £8 million from the future high streets fund and the proposed towns fund bid, which is currently under review, are so vital.
Being on the board throughout the process, I know how hard the team has endeavoured to create innovative proposals, and I am particularly looking forward to seeing the regeneration of the former M&S building into a multi-use facility and the creation of a cultural hub and arts facilities to be used by NN Contemporary Art on Guildhall Road. I cannot sum up Northampton’s case for regeneration funding better than Martin Mason, managing director of Tricker’s, who recently said:
“As the largest town in England, and the home of Tricker’s shoes, Northampton comes not only with its wealth of footwear history, but falls within the Oxford-Cambridge arc—an area linking the two cities together—a key focus of investment and regeneration by the UK government. The recently published Town Investment plan shows exactly why Northampton has the potential to be a vibrant and welcoming town centre for business, residents and visitors alike.”
I congratulate the hon. Member for Peterborough (Paul Bristow) on setting the scene so well. Owing to the benefits, it would be churlish of anyone to say that the scheme was not welcome. The towns fund was announced by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government in July 2019, with total funding of £3.6 billion composed of three separate strands. I welcomed that at the time, but back in November I asked about the potential success of Northern Ireland in similar scenarios:
“It is my understanding that local enterprise partnerships and investment promotion agencies across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were invited to submit nominations for the second round of the high potential opportunities scheme by 17 April 2020. I would be anxious to know the success of Northern Ireland applications for the towns fund.”—[Official Report, 18 November 2020; Vol. 684, c. 357-358.]
From the report, I see plenty of wonderful projects, and I welcome them, but I note that there is no information about the position of other countries within the UK, which I would have liked to see given the statement by the then Chancellor Philip Hammond when the future high streets fund was first announced at the 2018 Budget:
“So if Britain’s high streets are to remain at the centre of our community life, they will need to adapt.”—[Official Report, 29 October 2018; Vol. 648, c. 663.]
It is clear that that was not an England-only aim when the scheme was designed, so it should follow that Scotland and Wales, which form the rest of Britain, and Northern Ireland, which makes the last section of the wonderful UK, should have similar projects. “Stronger together”, as I always say, needs to be included at every stage. I am anxious that this House takes a holistic approach and ensures that projects in Northern Ireland see similar additional funding, whether directly or under the Barnett formula. I ask the Minister to address that in his summing up.
We are living in difficult days, none more so than for our high streets and the capital projects that the towns fund was designed to address. That includes projects to improve transport access to town centres and vehicle and pedestrian flow in town centres; congestion-relieving infrastructure; infrastructure to facilitate new housing and office space, and projects that seek to substitute underused and persistently vacant retail units with residential units. We have to look at that in the future. There are certainly worthy projects in my area, and I call on the Minister to work with all his counterparts in all devolved areas to ensure that similar goals are achieved UK-wide.
I welcome the scheme and its aim, and I look forward to seeing how it fulfils the initial goal of improving the British high street. In the words of Margaret Thatcher, we can never forget that Northern Ireland is as British as Finchley. We deserve similar, and I look forward to better understanding how that can be achieved in tandem with devolved Administrations.
Well done to my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Paul Bristow) for securing this debate, and well done to him for his response to the initial intervention. We have heard much churlish moaning from Labour Members. Why did they not do something to help these towns when they were in government? It is this Conservative Government who are doing it.
I hugely support the town deal bid recently submitted by Leyland town board. Leyland is fabulous—it is where my parliamentary office is—but no one can say with a straight face that it has had its fair share of investment over the years. At the end of its main street, Hough Lane, stands the old Leyland works clock, which still says: “For all time”. Quite right. The trucks, fire engines and buses still grace the world—quality northern engineering—and we seek to build on that heritage.
Leyland town board was formed from local people, businesses, organisations and government officials, including—I declare an interest—me, and it is chaired by the fabulous businesswoman Jennifer Gadsdon, who deserves huge thanks and praise. We asked ourselves, “What does Leyland need to make a big positive change?” The answer forms part of the basis for our town deal bid to the Government.
We are competitively bidding for £21 million in Government grants to allow us, adding other funding in, to transform Hough Lane—outdoor space, streetscape and roadway—and create high-quality space for the community and businesses. We want to connect up bits of the town that have become separated, and create a market square and a green space. We want to regenerate our old market—refurbish, upgrade, expand—and we want to prime our natural commercial nous and skills with a dedicated base building for people to learn, work and grow.
It is three great connected ideas in one great bid. I look forward to the Government accepting our Leyland town deal bid and therefore investing in Leyland and building for our future.
In Truro, we are at an exciting point; just last week, our investment plan was submitted to the Department for consideration. A huge amount of work went into it by everyone involved, but I want to pay particular thanks to the chair of the Truro town fund board, Carole Theobald, and vice-chair Dr Alan Stanhope, as well as Mel Richardson and all board members, who have worked tirelessly to make the Truro plan exciting, thorough and optimistic for the future of Truro and for everyone who lives and works here. It has been a privilege to play just a small part, as part of that board, in the fantastic effort that has gone on.
Granted city status in 1876, Truro is Cornwall’s only city and situated at the head of the Fal estuary. Surrounded by farmland mid-way between Cornwall’s north and south coasts, it has always been a meeting place. Its natural assets—particularly the water—and location have made it a port, a trading and administrative capital, and a centre for skills and education. That continues today. Truro is the civic, retail and health centre for Cornwall, providing employment for 30,000 people, mainly in the public sector, with Cornwall Council’s headquarters on the edge of Truro, as well as Truro cathedral, the Royal Cornwall Hospital, and the Knowledge Spa, where I recently took part in the Novavax covid vaccine trial.
Last summer, when the covid regulations allowed, we welcomed my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to Truro to meet the Truro town fund team at the water’s edge to talk about plans we have to reconnect Truro to its three rivers. There used to be as many as 60 cargo ships using Truro and Newham as their home port. However, the silting of the river led to a decline in the sea trade after the second world war. Truro’s commercial centre appeared to fall out with its maritime past, and part of our bid aims to resurrect that relationship. Delivering that means overcoming many challenges that have held us back in the past.
So what do we want to achieve? We want to reinvigorate our neglected waterfront community spaces on Lemon Quay and provide a new community space where all residents are welcome to meet, learn new skills, access support and feel part of our evolving city. We want to create a sustainable transport solution, using new paths and cycle routes, and a bridge to connect the city, and digitally focused, new, innovative learning and living environments that will help to create jobs in high-growth and high-value businesses. We want to repurpose vacant buildings for commercial and residential use, breathing new life into the city centre while enhancing our heritage, and create an active leisure attraction, including an indoor climbing wall, water-based activities and sports facilities, as well as performance areas. This town deal is a chance to future-proof Truro for generations to come. By working with Government, we hope we can be ambitious for the future.
I am delighted to sneak in to speak in this debate about the towns fund, which is a policy that will accelerate the Government’s levelling-up agenda and breathe new life into so many communities.
As a born and bred Wulfrunian, I was delighted that Wolverhampton was one of the first places to be invited to bid for up to £25 million of investment. We submitted our bid last year and are eagerly awaiting some good news. Our board decided to submit a larger bid, as there is a clause in the prospectus allowing a proposal that is transformative of a wider region to bid for more money. Whether we meet the criterion is, I am sure, being considered as our bid is discussed, but I hope the bid makes clear the ambition and determination of Wolverhampton to generate, to regenerate and to prosper.
I am sorry that Opposition Members are seeking to politicise the towns fund. Wolverhampton has three parliamentary seats. Only one was a Conservative target seat before the last election, and we have a Labour council. I am really pleased that, while the Opposition is dividing the House, in Wolverhampton we are working together constructively on a cross-party basis with local businesses. Like many Wulfrunians, I have looked on as our city has declined, and I welcome this investment, which will lift up our city.
Since my election, we have already seen huge investment from this Conservative Government, with £16 million from the future high streets fund and £15 million for the national brownfield institute. I am hugely grateful to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government for engaging so enthusiastically on the towns fund and for putting up with my persistent lobbying. Most of our bid was focused on the city centre, but I was determined that places such as Bilston and Wednesfield, our two towns, should also benefit.
In the very short time I have left, I want to pay tribute to the people in Wednesfield. It is a brilliant place that has been in need of regeneration, and I have pushed at every stage to get local people involved in the decision making around the towns fund. I am pleased to say that I will be meeting some of our brilliant local traders this evening to talk about how the initial accelerated funding of an additional million-pound investment is already being spent to improve the local area. I am immensely grateful for the—
Before I begin, I wish to pay tribute to my predecessor in this role, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), who has worked very hard. I wish him well in his new portfolio area.
I am delighted to participate in this debate on the towns fund, which was unveiled to great fanfare in July 2019. This is a fund totalling £3.6 billion that was billed as a means by which towns and cities could be levelled up—a laudable aim indeed, and well done to the towns that have been benefited. However, the towns fund is mired in controversy, and allegations of pork barrel politics simply will not go away. We have heard today from a number of Members about how nearly two thirds of the towns that were awarded funds were target Tory seats in the general election that followed, a mere two months after the awards were made. Of the 100 towns invited to work with the Government on new town deals worth up to £25 million, 61 were in marginal seats.
Are we to believe that that was purely coincidence? What are the public supposed to think when towns in the constituencies of the two Housing Ministers who were involved in the distribution of the fund benefited weeks before an election? The Secretary of State will surely recall how, on the one hand, he denied any involvement in his constituency benefiting from a £25 million grant weeks before the general election, yet on the other hand, took credit during the campaign for that grant. That only feeds allegations and suspicions of pork barrel politics.
What we do know is that the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government drew up a ranked priority list of towns for the fund based on need and the potential for development, and another 61 medium and low-priority locations where also chosen. The smell is so bad that the Public Accounts Committee, in a damning report, concluded that it was
“not convinced by the rationales for selecting some towns and not others”,
with the justifications offered by Ministers for selecting individual towns being
“vague and based on sweeping assumptions”,
and that the system gave
“every appearance of having been politically motivated”.
This damning report is even more astonishing when we consider that the majority of the members of the Public Accounts Committee are Tory MPs. That may seem to members of the public to be what, in common parlance, might be called a fair cop.
That is why there is so much concern about the shared prosperity fund, which is also looking suspiciously like it might be perceived as just another political tool. We still do not know how the shared prosperity fund will work or when it will be made available, but we do know that the Scottish Government consultation on this fund shows a clear majority favouring a Scottish-led fund, reflecting Scottish policy priorities. We remember the grand words of the Communities Minister in 2019, when he said that, as far as the UK prosperity fund was concerned, the devolution settlement would be respected. Let us hope that that will be the case.
There is growing unease about how public funds, as in the case of the towns fund, which are supposed to be for the promotion of the public good, instead are used for political ends. That has been followed by questions about a lack of transparency and accountability in how public money is being spent, with regard to the towns fund and the awarding of contracts generally. This is why my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) has brought forward a private Member’s Bill that seeks much greater accountability and transparency for the public purse. If towns funds are truly to help towns, the deployment of cash must be more transparent and based on need.
The stench around the towns fund is pretty strong, and it is deeply concerning if the same questionable criteria are applied to the UK prosperity fund. Public money is just that: it is the public’s money, not a resource to be deployed for political or other purposes. It must be used transparently and in the public’s interest. I say to the Minister that if something smells very bad, it is often because it is very bad. So what assurances can the Minister give this House, following the publication of the Public Accounts Committee report? To address concerns about the administration of the UK prosperity fund, will he commit today to ensuring that it will be administered by the Scottish Government and that the devolution settlement will be respected, as was promised, when this fund eventually sees the light of day?
The Government like to talk about levelling up the country, but sadly their record shows they have done the precise opposite. Since they were first elected in 2010, the Conservative Government have imposed £15 billion-worth of cuts on local authorities, and they did not share the pain equally either. The 10 poorest council areas have faced cuts 18 times bigger than the 10 richest, as the Government embedded inequality. Initially, the Conservatives’ failed ideological austerity stalled Britain’s economic recovery after the global financial crash. Last year, they left the country so woefully unprepared for the covid-19 pandemic that we are now suffering the highest death rate in Europe and the deepest recession of any major economy.
Right now, many of our towns and high streets are at breaking point. After a decade of Conservative cuts and now the recession, they are on their last legs. Councils cannot support high street businesses because the Government have left councils with a £2.5 billion funding black hole, after breaking their promise to compensate them fully for the costs of tackling covid-19.
Conservative changes to planning rules allow developers to convert shops into low-quality flats, so that they can never reopen as shops again, creating dead zones on our high streets. Now the Government plan to choke off spending on the hope of rapid economic recovery by forcing council tax rises on families already struggling to pay the bills in these unprecedented times.
The Government spent the past decade levelling the country down, stripping out jobs, assets and investments from parts of the country they chose to hold back. They have closed nearly 800 libraries, 750 youth centres, 1,300 Sure Start centres and more than 800 public toilets. That is political vandalism on our high streets, but it goes much further than that. They have deliberately pulled our country apart by deepening and entrenching inequality. Whole regions have been starved of investment, leaving them without the infrastructure, jobs or skills to attract good new employers. People should not have to leave the towns they live in to find a decent job because all that is available back home are the low-skill, low-paid, insecure jobs that are a hallmark of this Government’s economic neglect.
As my hon. Friends the Members for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock), for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) and for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) have said, opportunity should be open to everyone, wherever they live. Aspiration should not be capped because someone lives in a part of the country that the Conservatives chose to abandon. Social care should be an entitlement, not a lucky dip. Our high streets deserve a brighter future than the long stretches of graffiti-covered shutters that are the visible legacy of Conservative misrule.
As my hon. Friends the Members for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols) and for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy) point out, the towns fund is a wholly inadequate fix for how the lost Conservative decade has blighted our high streets. The Government stripped out £15 billion of funding, and now they expect gratitude for giving less than a quarter of that money back.
Some funding is better than no funding, and we support those areas lucky enough to get something, but what about everywhere else? The vast majority of towns and high streets are getting nothing at all, as we heard from my hon. Friends the Members for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett), for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) and for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer), my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) and my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders). Instead of the open and fair process that communities want to see, the Conservatives are stitching up backroom deals that carve most towns out of the funding they so desperately need.
I am sorry, there is not going to be time. How embarrassing, yet how typical of this Government that the Secretary of State and the right hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) stitch up a cosy deal to funnel public money into each other’s constituencies, taking it from towns and high streets with higher levels of deprivation. The Conservatives are pulling our country apart. Labour wants to see our country come back together again. People living in every town in the country deserve their fair share of investments.
The real yardstick of success would be if the towns fund put new opportunities on people’s doorsteps in every town and made every part of the country a good place to set up home and aspire to a better future, but that is not what we are seeing. The Public Accounts Committee says that the Government are unclear what they expect from the funding or how they will measure its success. That simply is not good enough.
Many new Conservative Members, as we have heard this afternoon, like to trumpet how towns in their constituencies were selected to benefit from funding, but they are remarkably quiet, are they not, about the much bigger sums of money the Conservative Government took away from those places in the first place. The Conservatives took £275 million away from Bishop Auckland’s local council. They took £165 million away from Blackpool. They raided £203 million from Crewe, £324 million from Penistone and Stocksbridge, and £197 million from Wakefield. The towns fund gives back only a tiny proportion of what the Conservatives have already stripped away. It is like a burglar breaking into a house in the dead of night, stripping it bare and then expecting thanks for handing back the TV set.
We will not secure the economic recovery by killing off our high streets, and we will not protect the NHS by starving older people of the social care they need. We will not rebuild our country by choking off spending with a Conservative council tax hike that is timed to hit hard-pressed family budgets just as the furlough scheme comes to an end. If the Conservatives really want to bring lasting prosperity to towns and regions that they have held back, they have to do better than the towns fund. This country needs a real plan to bring jobs and investment to every town and high street, not the short-term fixes and back-room deals cobbled together by the same Government who pushed our high streets to the brink of disaster in the first place.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Paul Bristow) and the Backbench Business Committee on securing what has been an important and passionate debate. We have heard colleagues on both sides of the House speak with passion and enthusiasm about the communities they represent. I am hugely grateful to colleagues on both sides of the House for their contributions, and I will try to address as many of the points raised as possible.
This debate has given us a chance to celebrate the towns fund, which is a cornerstone of our levelling-up agenda. It is helping to reshape towns and cities into places where businesses and communities can thrive. In 2019, we announced that 101 places had been invited to develop proposals for a town deal. The objective of these deals is to drive the regeneration of towns to deliver long-term economic and productivity growth. It has been genuinely inspiring to see town deal boards, communities and representatives of individual places work with local government to do just that.
These towns are spread right across the country. Many are birthplaces of industry that have been centres of commerce for centuries. Others are bastions of the maritime economy across the coastline. They are all different, but the thing they have in common is that they have been left behind as investment has focused on big cities for too long. Town deals are reversing that trend. They are about providing investment and confidence at a crucial time for these communities. We are investing in new uses for often derelict and unloved spaces. We are creating new cultural and economic assets that will benefit communities for years to come, and we are connecting people through better infrastructure, both digital and physical, such as the new walking and cycling routes planned at Torquay and the creation of a new digi-tech factory in Norwich.
It is unsurprising and disappointing to see the Labour party today trot out the same tired old lines attacking this fund, which is investing so much in towns that were neglected for years under the last Labour Government. We heard Labour Members say again today that this fund has been targeted at Conservative-held areas. They are wrong. The majority of towns selected are in either Labour or Opposition-held local authority areas. Those councils have worked with us co-operatively, passionately trying to put together their bids, to deliver investment in their communities, but the Labour party in Westminster is determined to reject the support for those communities and attack these local regeneration projects in towns and cities that they neglected for years and years.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, but I am afraid he is completely wrong. Sixty out of 61 towns selected by Ministers were in Conservative-held or Conservative target seats. Barnsley, which I represent, has had the biggest cuts in the country. How could we possibly not have been considered for the fund?
I ask the hon. Lady to check the facts. The majority of these town deals are in Opposition-held council areas.
I was delighted to hear the hon. Member for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy) open her speech by saying that no Labour MP will oppose more funding for local government, because she will have the opportunity shortly to vote for a local government finance settlement that will increase councils’ core spending power by 4.5%—a real-terms increase.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) asked about funding for Northern Ireland and how the Department for International Trade’s high potential opportunities programme is supporting investment across the UK. I can confirm that DIT announced in October the second round of successful bids, with 19 new projects selected, and it is currently working with Invest Northern Ireland to explore even more investment opportunities. I am sure that colleagues in the Department for International Trade will be happy to pick that up with him.
In the face of this relentless negativity from the Labour party, in October last year we announced the first seven towns to have gone through the assessment process and have their plans approved. Among them was Peterborough. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough worked closely with the town deal board and helped to develop the ambitious investment plan. I am delighted that it was offered £22.9 million in October. That funding will help to deliver a new enterprise hub to support entrepreneurs and inward investment. It will support healthy lifestyles by making it easier to walk and cycle, and it will further Peterborough’s ambitions for low-carbon living. I thank my hon. Friend and his town board for all their support and help in making this happen.
I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South (Scott Benton) for his remarks this afternoon. It is in large part down to his hard work, alongside that of the town deal board, that Blackpool will receive £39.5 million. This substantial investment reflects the exceptional nature of Blackpool’s proposals and the national significance of what they are planning. We think investing in this iconic British seaside resort has benefits that will reach way beyond the boundaries of the town. The plans include making Blackpool’s famous illuminations even more impressive so that they can attract visitors right around the year and have a huge impact on tourism in the town.
My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) raised his ambitions for the Goole to Leeds rail link and asked whether we could retain some flexibility in delivering the fund to support places requesting revenue funding as part of the deal. I would say to him that the towns fund criteria are broadly drawn, and intentionally so, to ensure that we give towns as much flexibility as possible to determine their own priorities. It is right that the towns fund is principally about capital investments, but we recognise that in some towns there might be a particular need for an amount of revenue funding, perhaps to support the implementation of a capital project, so we absolutely agree with that.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) talked passionately about his town investment plan, which we received in late October last year. I can assure him that the assessment process is under way and my officials are looking at the details of the plan. I agree with him that it provides the opportunity for Harlow to determine its own future, and I will certainly join him in thanking the Harlow growth board, the chief executive of the council and all the officers who have worked on the bid.
Alongside town deals, we are also investing directly in the high streets that are at the heart of so many of our communities. Too many high streets have seen considerable decline in the past decades, and those challenges have been exacerbated over the last year by covid-19. That is why, on Boxing day, we announced the winners of our future high streets competition, committing up to £830 million to 72 places in England and giving a major boost to local high streets and the many jobs and livelihoods that depend on them.
That investment includes over £11 million for Blyth, which was raised in the debate by my hon. Friend the Member for Blyth Valley (Ian Levy). This will deliver important new cultural and educational facilities and bring vibrancy to the town centre. The investment also includes nearly £18 million for Worcester city centre, which will benefit from the renovation of the popular theatre and the Corn Exchange, and £25 million for Swindon to modernise its town centre. Some £107 million from the future high streets fund has also been allocated to support the regeneration of heritage high streets, and we are doing everything possible to help high streets to survive, adapt and thrive.
My hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough also talked about the need to do more and go further, and he was right to do so, because there is of course more investment to come. At the spending review, we announced the levelling up fund, worth £4 billion, and that will bring infrastructure investment—
Burnley is looking forward not only to the levelling up fund but to the competitive round of the towns fund. May I ask my hon. Friend to look sympathetically at Burnley’s bid when that scheme opens, because we have such ambitious plans not only for Burnley town centre but for Padiham, too?
My hon. Friend is a passionate advocate for his constituency and I know he will champion any bids that come in, as he is absolutely right to do. I am of course always happy to speak to him about his representations.
The levelling-up fund will be open to all local areas and allocated competitively. We will prioritise bids that drive growth and regeneration in the places that need it most—those places that face particular local challenges in upgrading their infrastructure and those that have received less Government investment in recent years. We are also developing the UK shared prosperity fund, which will succeed EU structural funds and provide vital investment in local economies, free of the bureaucracy that thwarted European funding. The new fund will allow us to target funding better and support those who are most in need. The towns fund, the levelling-up fund and the UKSPF will be vital tools for levelling up in our country.
I thank all Members for their contributions to this debate. The Government are levelling up: we want everybody, wherever they live, to benefit from increased growth and prosperity, and the towns fund is helping us to achieve that. We are investing in the places that need it most and putting local communities in charge of the decisions that affect them. The towns fund marks just the start of that. There is, of course, much more investment to come and much more to do through the levelling-up fund and the UK shared prosperity fund. We want to see more towns such as Barrow, Torquay, Blackpool and Mansfield benefit so that everybody, wherever they live in our great country, can be part of a brighter and more prosperous future.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the Towns Fund.
As the Adjournment debate is entirely physical, I thank the technicians and broadcasting unit for all their help in facilitating the work of Parliament this week. In order for Members to leave safely and to allow the sanitisation of the Dispatch Boxes, we will suspend for a brief moment before the Adjournment debate.