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House of Lords Hansard
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19 November 2020
Volume 807

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Wednesday 18 November.

“The towns fund is one element of this Government’s mission to spread opportunity and to level up by investing in towns and smaller cities—places to support businesses and communities so that we can help them to thrive.

Last year we announced that 101 places had been invited to develop proposals for a town deal as part of the £3.6 billion towns fund. These towns are spread across the country. Many are birthplaces of industry and centres of commerce. Others are bastions of the maritime economy or the pleasures of the English seaside. Others are great agricultural and market towns. They are all different. But what they do have in common is that they have been underinvested in and undervalued by central Government for too long as too much investment has been centred on our big cities.

Town deals are about reversing that trend. They are about providing investment and confidence at a crucial time for these communities. Through town deals, we are driving economic regeneration and growth, raising living standards and boosting productivity. We are investing in new uses for often derelict and unloved spaces. We are creating new cultural and economic assets that will benefit those communities not just today but for generations to come. We are connecting people through better infrastructure both digital and physical, such as the new walking and cycling routes planned for Torquay and the creation of the new digitech factory in Norwich.

We have already made some investments as a rapid response to the effects of Covid-19 where towns are particularly vulnerable. Up-front grants of up to £1 million are being spent in places such as Burton-on-Trent, on its new main shopping centre to allow greater access for pedestrians and cyclists, or on demolishing and rebuilding unloved buildings in places like Newcastle-under-Lyme. Many towns are repurposing empty shops into vibrant community and business spaces that will help them to bounce back when Covid is done.

Each town selected to bid for a town deal is eligible for an investment of up to £25 million. Of course, that is not guaranteed, and all proposals are rigorously assessed by officials in my Department. In exceptional circumstances, such as the nationally significant plans for the great town of Blackpool, we will invest more. I am particularly excited by Blackpool’s plans to make its illuminations even more impressive and attract more visitors when they are back next year.

Town deals are about more than simply investment. They are about the whole town coming together, to create and share a genuine vision for the future of that place. We have just offered Barrow-in-Furness a town deal that will help to address the skills gap, create better housing and support local businesses to grow and employ more people. I am hugely excited by these deals. They offer a chance to turn around the fortunes of many, many places.

This is just the start. The Government are committed to levelling up all parts of the country. We want everyone, wherever they live, to benefit from increased economic growth and prosperity. Town deals are but one way to achieve that. All Members of the House will agree that places such as Blackpool, Barrow and Darlington need and deserve investment, and they will have it under this Government. The work of the towns fund is just beginning.”

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My Lords, I draw the attention of the House to my relevant registered interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association.

I welcome the towns fund, as getting funding to communities is always welcome news, but this whole issue has arisen because of concerns about how the funding is allocated. It must be fair and based on understandable criteria and a proper assessment of the need and must have clear goals. At no point should there ever be any suggestion that funding is taking place on political terms. What assurance can the noble Lord give the House that this has not been the case with funds allocated to date? Can he provide information on the different areas where funding was allocated or refused and on the criteria used by his department to make such decisions?

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My Lords, I am very happy to provide an outline of how the towns were selected. Officials ruled out 541 towns based on their lower levels of deprivation. The remaining towns were ranked as higher, medium or low priority based on an evidence-based methodology. The top 40 high-priority towns were chosen for town deals. Ministers used their local knowledge to conduct a qualitative assessment when picking the remaining 61 towns. This involved—

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I am afraid we cannot hear you well enough; your diction is very indistinct. If you could sit forward a bit, that would be very helpful.

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I am very sorry about my diction. Can you hear me better now? I hope so. I was saying that the top 40 towns were chosen for town deals and that Ministers used their local knowledge to conduct a qualitative assessment when picking the remaining 61 towns. A deals process, rather than an open competition, was used, as many previously left-behind towns lacked the capacity to bid. In that sense, the process was very clear and fair in relation to the basis for allocating the considerable amount of money involved.

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My Lords, I have relevant interests, as set out in the register, and I also welcome the towns fund. however, it is not quite correct that, as the Minister has just said, the top 40 towns, as assessed by the criteria, were chosen for the money in the towns fund. There were many towns in the highest-priority category that were not selected. Can the Minister explain why they were rejected? What can I tell their local representatives about why they are failing to meet the eye of the Minister when they meet the criteria?

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I want to make clear that the process was driven by officials using an evidence-based methodology. The top 40 high-priority towns were chosen for town deals. For the remaining 61 towns, there was ministerial involvement but using a process designed by officials in my department. I add that I am delighted that Dewsbury in the borough of Kirklees has been selected to develop proposals for a town deal. My department is looking forward to receiving its town investment plan early next year.

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My Lords, in all the government guidance on the towns fund, there is the prospect of there being a major missed opportunity for prioritising co-investment with the private sector in sport, recreation and active-lifestyle facilities. I praise my noble friend the Minister for personally promoting the importance of sport as a catalyst for levelling up and inspiring communities, as we did in the deprived East End of London with the Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2012. I hope my noble friend the Minister will agree that we urgently need to build regeneration, inspiration and legacy into our town fund initiatives, particularly in the north of England?

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My Lords, there is no greater champion of the role of sport, leisure and recreation in place-making. I point out that the towns fund guidance provides the envelope upon which towns can prioritise leisure facilities. As a department, we hope to see many towns come forward, building in leisure facilities, parks and green spaces, cycle lanes and a myriad of sports activities within their bids.

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My Lords, I am also delighted that the Government have set up the towns fund, which will make a significant contribution to many poorer communities. Nevertheless, it still remains that the Public Accounts Committee has expressed concerns about why some towns were chosen and some were not. In future, will Her Majesty’s Government undertake to publish the objective criteria and evidence that will be used for selection so that everyone can be assured that there is no political influence in making these selections and choices?

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In my answer to the previous question, I made it clear that this is a combination of using an evidence-based methodology and Ministers using their local knowledge. That benefited 101 towns in the first instance. There is more money to be spent on regeneration, but the foundation stone of the allocation of funds was using a clear methodology with multiple criteria, including productivity and exposure to economic shocks.

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My Lords, I thank the Minister for his responses, but his last response gives rise to some concern. It certainly looks as if many of the decisions were partial and, given what was said during the election by the Secretary of State to Conservative candidates about the likelihood of the towns in their constituencies receiving consideration in the towns fund, his view that Ministers used their personal knowledge gives folk like me from the northern part of Durham real concern. Will the Minister therefore be clearer than he was with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans and state that, in future, criteria will be published so that we can see that an independent, proper decision to allocate public money to towns that need it—and they do need it—is transparently fair?

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I would point out that the National Audit Office looked into this. Its report sets out the town deal selection process in detail. The report showed that the more affluent towns were ruled out and the 40 most deprived towns were rightly favoured, with the remainder selected from a shortlist that considered a wide range of evidence. This process was developed by officials but there was political oversight, as there should be.

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I, too, welcome this immense support for local towns. I am sure that the Minister will be perfectly aware of the political leadership required in any such allocations, be it locally or centrally. Despite what the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, said about the beautiful Canary Wharf development, access is the most important thing. That has not always been meritorious or led by local demand. Can the Minster assure the House, me and local communities that he will ensure that women leaders play a vital role locally and take part in the regeneration and redevelopment of new towns?

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My Lords, there is no doubt that regeneration involves physical regeneration, economic regeneration and social renewal. Women often play a bigger part than men in that process, from my experience in local government.

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My Lords, I declare my interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association.

Yesterday, the Government made an announcement acknowledging both the urgency of the climate emergency and their special global responsibility in chairing COP 26. If the Government are operating in a joined-up way, you would expect the towns fund money to be used for super-policies that have environmental benefits in addition to economic ones. Can the Minister tell me what percentage of spending addresses those goals?

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My Lords, I am happy to write to the noble Baroness on that point as I do not have those figures to hand.

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All questions have now been asked.