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Levelling-up Fund

Volume 707: debated on Monday 24 January 2022

7. What steps he is taking to ensure that levelling-up funding is allocated equitably and transparently. (905180)

14. What steps he is taking through the levelling-up fund to improve transport infrastructure in the north of England. (905187)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bootle (Peter Dowd) for the brief, tantalising preview of what is to come. The levelling-up fund is allocated according to objective criteria, including value for money, strategic fit, deliverability and the characteristics of place. I am therefore delighted that places such as Rotherham, Liverpool and Newcastle upon Tyne have already secured funding through our levelling-up funds, which include the towns fund, the levelling-up fund itself and the previous local growth fund.

A bit more tantalisation here: how can the Government’s levelling-up allocations possibly be equitable and transparent when the Government’s own index of multiple deprivation indicates that the constituencies of the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care—numbers 254 and 268 of the 310 on the index—received £27 million and £14.5 million respectively, while an area in the top 0.5% of the index, which includes my constituency, where my constituency office is based, received nothing? The question is: is that equitable, transparent and fair? Will the Secretary of State or a Minister meet me and my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson), to discuss our concerns?

It is certainly equitable, transparent and fair, and should the hon. Member wish, there is an explanatory memorandum on, which would take him, as it would any hon. Member, through the process by which funds have been allocated. I should say that the whole Liverpool city region received £37.5 million through the levelling-up fund, but I would be delighted to talk to him and the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) to ensure that future bids can land carefully, safely and successfully.

In Newcastle, we have been waiting seven years—seven years—for real-time integrated bus information of the type that Londoners take for granted. Now we hear that the £3 billion bus improvement funding is less than half that, and much of that is going on zero-emission buses, meaning even less money for our bus improvement plan, which includes real-time information. Will the Secretary of State commit to levelling up bus transport in the north so that we are no longer under-served, overcharged and underinformed?

Having spent some of the happiest months of my twenties on buses in Newcastle, I can absolutely sympathise with the hon. Member. It is the case that her constituency received £20 million from the levelling-up fund, but I look forward to working with her, the North of Tyne Mayor and Newcastle City Council to see what more we can do to improve public transport.

I welcome the £11 million from the levelling-up fund that has already gone to Rother Valley, including £4.5 million to transform Maltby, and I am glad that Rotherham Council is again putting in another bid for Rother Valley to get another £9 million for Dinnington High Street. Can the Secretary of State tell me what future funding pots will be available for other parts of Rother Valley, so that the whole of the constituency can be levelled up, especially the likes of Thurcroft, Swallownest and Kiveton Park?

My hon. Friend is right that there has already been significant investment in Rotherham. Of course, one of the beneficiaries of that is the shadow Defence Secretary, whose impassioned advocacy on behalf of his constituents has not gone unheard; however, there are a number of communities in Rother Valley. The community ownership fund, which we will be expanding, is just one route, and I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to take it with me to ensure that the villages and communities that he serves get the services they deserve.

Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that smaller and rural local authorities often do not have the capacity to deal with complex application processes? What steps will he take to address that concern?

My right hon. Friend is right. He represents, I think, the largest, and certainly the second-most attractive constituency in Scotland, which covers three excellent local authority areas. There are excellent local councillors in all of them but, essentially because they lack the economies of scale, we need to work with those local authorities to ensure that, from Lockerbie to Moffat, the communities that deserve investment secure it.

I am sure the Secretary of State will agree that the success of levelling up will depend in large part on how much money is available and how it is distributed. I do not know whether he has had a chance to look at the recent research by Teesside University, which shows that over the past seven years the amount of money coming through EU funding and the local growth fund has been £2.1 billion a year, while the amount for the next few years from the shared prosperity and levelling-up funds is projected to be only £1.5 billion a year—a significant cut. In addition, the cuts in his own Department’s funding have hit the poorest local authorities the hardest, so when he produces his levelling-up White Paper, will he produce a comprehensive list of spending per head by region for each Department and show how the policies he is advocating will change those funding levels for the benefit of the poorest areas, which have suffered most in the past 10 years?

I would gently contest the argument that the poorest areas have suffered most in the past 10 years, but the Chairman of the Select Committee makes an important point about transparency in the allocation of funding, and I look forward to working with him to ensure just that.

Given current media speculation about the allocation of levelling-up funding, and given that I am a Member of this House who has unfortunately had to vote against the Government on several occasions recently, will the Secretary of State reassure me on whether there is any point in North West Leicestershire reapplying for levelling-up funding? Does he agree that, were Coalville to be successful in the next round of bidding, it would demonstrate that the Government are not engaging in pork barrel politics?

My hon. Friend, like me, abjures the whole idea of pork barrels. What we both believe in is allocating funding on the basis of merit and need. I can assure him that he has been in the same Division Lobby as me more often, I believe—although I stand to be corrected by the Whips—than the deputy leader of the Labour party, the shadow Defence Secretary, the shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, the shadow Culture Secretary or the shadow Social Care Secretary, all of whom have benefited from levelling-up funds. If a requirement for Government funding were voting with the Government, I fear that the deputy leader of the Labour party, my dear friend, would have lost out. However, I am delighted that her constituents in Ashton-under-Lyne have benefited from our funding, because we are committed to levelling up and uniting the country, irrespective of political colour.

Analysis of levelling-up funding published recently by NPC—New Philanthropy Capital—found that, despite strong public support, homelessness is not being properly addressed. It found that communities with the highest concentrations of black, African and Caribbean communities fared poorly, and that four of the most deprived communities missed out entirely. Both the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, the hon. Member for Harborough (Neil O'Brien) have sought to make a supposed joke of this, but I do not think it is laughing matter that while poorer communities have missed out, the constituencies of at least three Cabinet Ministers, which are considerably more affluent, were successful in their bids. Beyond the jokes and the spin, does the Secretary of State honestly expect the House to believe that the Government have acted equitably rather than defaulting to the usual approach of pursuing narrow self-interest?

I cannot see how it would be in the narrow self-interest of the Government, if operating on partisan lines, to have given the hon. Gentleman’s constituency £18 million for transport improvements from the levelling-up fund. These are not jokes; these are serious matters. We work with people across this House, including and especially in the Labour party, to ensure that funding goes where it is required. Lying behind the allegations made by him and others is a suggestion that somehow civil servants would conspire with Ministers deliberately to favour constituencies on the basis of political colouration.

My new opposite number, the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy)—I offer her my congratulations on her elevation—recently wrote to me to ask whether we would make transparent the basis on which we allocate that funding. We have: it is published on a website called Google can sometimes be helpful to all of us.

Notwithstanding the Secretary of State’s earlier comments, I am sure that he would never accuse a fellow Tory MP of misleading the House. Will he therefore comment on the veracity of the specific remarks made by the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg) about threats made to Tory MPs to withdraw investment from their constituencies and release negative press stories as punishment for supporting a no-confidence vote in the Prime Minister? Will he outline what investigations he intends to undertake to look into the abuse, or possible abuse, of levelling-up funds?

There is no evidence of any abuse of levelling-up funding. If anyone has it, I hope that they will bring it to the House’s attention. As for any suggestion that someone may be on the receiving end of lots of negative press stories for voting against the Government, as someone who is solid, 100%, totally behind the Prime Minister and yet also on the receiving end of a plethora of negative press stories, I can tell the hon. Member that there is no correlation between the two.

On every single criterion, my Gosport constituency should qualify for levelling-up funding, but our recent bid for funds was unsuccessful. Quite simply, we have a small council that lacks the resources to compete with the big guys for the funding, and there is also a strong feeling that our south coast location could disadvantage us. If, as the Secretary of State said, impassioned advocacy is a recipe for attracting funding, can he please give me a glimmer of hope for the future? Will he tell me that the levelling-up White Paper will also offer us hope, and when it will be published?

Few people put more passion into their advocacy than my hon. Friend. While in levelling up we must have a proper focus on the midlands and the north, other parts of the United Kingdom, including the area around the Solent—Gosport, Portsmouth and Southampton—also require investment. I will work with her to ensure that that investment is forthcoming.