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House of Commons Hansard
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18 November 2020
Volume 684

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(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government if he will make a statement on the towns fund.

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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 digi-tech 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 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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Thank you for granting the urgent question, Madam Deputy Speaker. I thank the Secretary of State for his response, although many questions remain unanswered. He discussed the Blackpool illuminations, and we certainly need illumination on this side of the House about exactly why particular towns were chosen and not others. Can he tell us what was in his mind when he ignored civil servants’ advice and allocated funding to low-priority towns? Was it really a complete coincidence that all the low-priority towns that he chose happened to be in Tory-held or target seats? We have heard nothing to convince us that it is anything other than a deliberate ploy.

Serious concerns have been expressed, not just by Opposition Members but by the National Audit Office and the cross-party Public Accounts Committee. We are told that we are making the issue party political, but I remind Government Members that we are not the only ones who question this process. This is party political because the Government made it so in the first place by gerrymandering the fund. Can the Secretary of State give us assurances that the whole rationale for these decisions will be published and that any future rounds of the towns fund will be dealt with solely on merit?

I want to know whether Ellesmere Port will get a fair crack of the whip next time round. Before the scheme was announced we were told that we were well placed for the next round of funding. If the funds had been allocated on the scores alone there is no doubt that we would have qualified for support, and we would have put that money to good use, because there are ambitious plans for the town, ready to go, that only need Government support to be realised. When is the next opportunity, and will funding be allocated on a transparent and impartial basis? Does the Secretary of State accept that the pandemic has accelerated the challenges that many towns face and urgent action is needed? There can be no levelling up if one structural bias is replaced by another. There can be no levelling up if the playing field is uneven, and there can be no levelling up if large parts of the country are ignored just because they voted the wrong way.

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I look forward to receiving a bid from Ellesmere Port in the competitive phase next year. It seems as if the hon. Gentleman wants more of the towns fund, not less, and we can all agree that this is an important investment opportunity for places throughout the country.

A rigorous and robust procedure was put in place by the Department, before I or any other Minister set foot in the Department. That was then followed; we followed the advice of our excellent civil servants in the Department —it is a pity that the Opposition tried to cast aspersions on them—by selecting the 40 most highly ranked towns and smaller cities that their methodology drew up. It is surprising that the hon. Gentleman has such great enthusiasm for algorithm-based policy making. We have learned in the past year that a degree of judgment and qualitative analysis is also useful. The officials advised just that. They said that in addition to those 40 places we should use our judgment to select other places for inclusion from the list informed by the information and advice that they provided to us, because many of those places were quite finely balanced.

That is entirely consistent, and is set out in the work that the Department has shared with the National Audit Office. I have seen the recommendations from the Public Accounts Committee and, in the usual way, the Department will respond. The permanent secretary of my Department has made it clear that Ministers followed a rigorous and robust procedure in full. That is quite right, and that is how we will approach the next round of funding.

All of us on both sides of the House should be able to agree that this fund is important and that these places need investment. We are working very well with Labour councils in these places. The hon. Gentleman says that these are Conservative-voting places. I am afraid that it is not the towns fund that is responsible for the way people have voted in those communities—it is the fact that Labour MPs and successive Labour Governments have let down those communities for too long. More than 60% of the towns and smaller cities that we have invested in have Labour councils, and we are working extremely well with them, whether that is Wolverhampton or St Helens; I am sure we will hear other examples today. I look forward to working with Members on both sides of the House to continue to invest and level up.

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I am disappointed to see an attempt to score political points over a fantastic policy that is hopefully bringing investment to places such as Wolverhampton. In Wolverhampton, we have worked very constructively on our really rounded bid with MPs of both parties, under a Labour-led council, and local stakeholders. This policy has been met with unanimous positivity in the city of Wolverhampton, so I thank the Secretary of State for it. We are anxiously awaiting the result of our bid. One element of our bid that is very important to me is Wednesfield, a town in my constituency that has felt ignored for a number of decades. I would like reassurance that any money allocated to Wednesfield from this bid will be ring-fenced and will not be spent on other elements of the towns fund.

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I think the rules of the towns fund allow for funding to be devoted to a project anywhere within the boundaries that are agreed between my Department and the city or town concerned. I encourage my hon. Friend or officials from Wolverhampton City Council to get in touch with my officials to agree whether funding can be devoted to Wednesfield, because she makes a strong case for that. She made the point well that we are working extremely productively with local councils across the country of all political persuasions. I have spoken to the Labour leader of Wolverhampton City Council a number of times over the last year. He and his fellow councillors of all party persuasions support the towns fund and are in the process of putting in some strong proposals, and I look forward to a successful result in due course.

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The Secretary of State is accused today of blocking funding from the £3.6 billion towns fund going to the most deprived towns for which it was intended, and instead funnelling it into marginal Conservative party seats ahead of the general election, including to help his own re-election campaign. This clearly is not about levelling up, so let us see whether he will level with the British people about what really went on.

Did the Secretary of State discuss which towns would receive funding with No. 10 or any Conservative party employee before making the allocations, and will he publish any correspondence? Why did he tell his constituents,

“I helped to secure a £25 million town deal which…will…make the town centre a more attractive place to spend time in”,

despite claiming not to have been involved in any decision about Newark on “The Andrew Marr Show” on 11 October 2020? Was he present when his junior Minister made decisions about his constituency, and will he publish all minutes from that meeting, in which they both chose 61 towns that would benefit from funding?

What did the Secretary of State mean when he said that the Government would “only” commit £25 million to Stapleford in the constituency of Broxtowe if the Conservative party candidate, Darren Henry, was elected? Newark and Sherwood District Council removed the Secretary of State from its board “following conversations with Government”. What were those conversations, and did they take place before or after he saw the damning NAO report?

Finally, will the Secretary of State clear this up and publish in full the accounting officer’s assessment of the towns fund and the full criteria that he and his Ministers used to select towns when they chose to override civil servants’ advice? If he refuses to publish, the public can only conclude that it is because they have something to hide.

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Once again, the hon. Gentleman seeks to sow discord where there is none. We followed a very clear and robust procedure. The permanent secretary of my Department made that very clear when he appeared before the Public Accounts Committee. Again, I think it is disappointing that the hon. Gentleman chooses to cast aspersions upon distinguished civil servants.

With respect to the accounting officer’s advice, such advice is not routinely published. That is a decision not for Ministers, but for civil servants. Once again, the hon. Gentleman is highly misleading in his remarks, because the accounting officer’s advice was shared in full with the National Audit Office when it produced its report for the PAC. The Chair of the PAC asked to see the report and, in line with usual practice, the permanent secretary wrote a comprehensive summary of the advice. I have asked him once again to check that advice, and he says that the summary was comprehensive and covered all the points. The Chair of the Public Accounts Committee has all the information at her fingertips, as I suspect she knows perfectly well, because she is a highly experienced Member of this House.

With respect to Newark, I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman shows such interest in my constituency. Perhaps he could come up and visit us, but he does not like to go north of the M25 very often. If he did, he would know that Newark was the 16th most highly ranked town in the east midlands to be a beneficiary of the fund, and we supported 19 places in the east midlands. There is absolutely no reason why a Minister should disadvantage their constituency. We are both Ministers and constituency MPs, which is one of the great virtues of our political system, but it is right that those decisions are not taken by that particular Minister and, in the usual way, the decision was taken by a colleague.

With respect to the hon. Gentleman’s question about why I had said on the campaign trail that the fund’s future would be in question if there were a Labour Government, I think he has made that point for us today. He does not support the towns fund. The 101 places that are benefiting from it would be poorer if they had been under a Labour Government.

The message from the Labour party is very clear today: while we want to level up, it wants to score pointless political points. The shadow Secretary of State cannot talk about local government because his own Labour council has gone bankrupt with debts of £1.5 billion. He cannot talk about communities, because the committee on antisemitism has called him out, along with the majority of the members of the community team on the Labour Front Bench, for antisemitic incidents—quite how he can stay in position after that, I do not know. He cannot talk about housing because he has said that his team has no housing policies, and it will be years before he produces any. He cannot talk about housing because we are building more homes than any Government have done for the past 30 years. We will keep on building homes, we will keep on levelling up, and we will keep on investing in the communities that need it.

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The towns fund will help reverse the decline in places such as Ashfield and other ex-Labour strongholds in the midlands and the north, where, during decades of Labour MPs and Labour councils, the only thing on offer was more decline and more broken promises. The £1.5 million accelerated towns funding is already being put to good use in my area. Does my right hon. Friend agree that Labour should be supporting our plans to level up in the old industrial towns in the north, and will he meet me to discuss how I can get the town of Eastwood on my patch to be included in the next round of funding?

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I have to say that I do not recall my hon. Friend’s predecessor coming to me to lobby for investment in his community. What a refreshing difference it is to have a Conservative MP in Ashfield who is fighting for investment for that community. I would be delighted to meet him and discuss his plans to take Ashfield forward.

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I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) on securing today’s urgent question. During Monday’s departmental questions, I raised my concerns about the lack of clarity on the Barnettisation of towns funding and received the usual “jam tomorrow” answer that Scotland has become so accustomed to hearing from Whitehall, but what we are increasingly seeing from this Conservative Government is cronyism and sleaze, particularly from the Secretary of State’s Department. First, we have the Westferry scandal calling into question the Secretary of State’s inappropriate contact with Tory donor and property developer, Richard Desmond. Secondly, the coronavirus pandemic has seen the British Government award £1.5 billion of taxpayers’ money to companies linked to the Tories. Finally, last week we saw a damning report from the Public Accounts Committee, which said on the subject of towns funding that the Government

“has also not been open about the process it followed and it did not disclose the reasoning for selecting or excluding towns. This lack of transparency has fuelled accusations of political bias in the selection process”.

That report was signed off by Conservative MPs. Why can the Secretary of State not see, as everybody else can, that this stinks to high heaven and that sunlight—producing those accounting reports—is the best disinfectant?

The UK stronger towns fund is only 10% of what the UK would have received from EU cohesion funds if it had remained in the EU. Can the Secretary of State confirm that other towns funds and schemes will make up the shortfall from the stronger towns fund?

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I already responded at departmental questions that the question of Barnettisation of the fund will be a matter for the spending review. The hon. Gentleman I think said erroneously at departmental questions that it had taken us a number of weeks or even months to respond to him. That was not the case; actually, we responded immediately to his question at the previous departmental questions. I am happy to resend him a copy of that if he seems to have mislaid it.

With respect to the hon. Gentleman’s wider questions, I have already answered that we followed a robust procedure. That has been set out by the Department. My permanent secretary, in giving evidence to the Public Accounts Committee, made that abundantly clear.

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May I congratulate Warrington’s town deal board, which is cross-party, private and public sector, for its tremendous collaboration in securing £22 million for this area? Does my right hon. Friend agree that the shadow Communities Secretary, who pretends to be concerned about taxpayers’ money, should look closer to home, where his friends in Croydon have bankrupted the local council through terrible investment and financial mismanagement?

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My hon. Friend makes a good point. If we are looking to the shadow Secretary of State as the guardian of value for money and the Exchequer, I think the public will be sorely disappointed. It is probably about time that he spoke out about the activities of Croydon Council. Croydon Council’s mismanagement of public money has been, frankly, catastrophic and shocking. Who will lose out as a result? It will be the people of Croydon, who will see their services reduced and will have to deal for years to come with the toxic legacy of a Labour council that the shadow Secretary of State has fastidiously supported.

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Who authorised the 18 taxpayer-funded adverts that were placed on Facebook by the Secretary of State’s Department and were subsequently removed by Facebook?

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All spending by the Department is approved, by definition, by the Department, through the accounting officer and the permanent secretary.

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I very much support the towns fund, but I support even more the principle of the town deal, which lies behind it. That is the right way to level up the country—not just by allocating dollops of funding from Whitehall but by working with local leaders, councils and local enterprise partnerships that have a vision for their town to develop a plan to invest in it. Does my right hon. Friend agree, though, that we need to go beyond just councils and LEPs and ensure that money and power go directly to civil society and community groups that have a more granular vision for their place?

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My hon. Friend has been a champion of this for some time, and his brilliant report published earlier in the year made the case once again. One of the ideas behind the town deal is, exactly as he describes, not just for central Government to work directly with a particular local council—although, as I say, relations with local councils have been uniformly excellent in this process—but to broaden it out by bringing in members of the business community, members of civil society and Members of Parliament of all political persuasions. That is happening across the country. On Friday, I had the pleasure of joining a Zoom call with St Helens Council and the local community of St Helens, including the two Members of Parliament for St Helens, to hear their brilliant proposals and to offer my support and that of my Department as they bring them forward to fruition.

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In my constituency, Workington will hopefully receive £25 million from the towns deal and Maryport £17 million from the future high streets fund. These figures will make a tangible difference to communities such as mine that have previously been let down by their political leadership. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Opposition Benches might not be so empty if Labour had done more for its communities when it held those seats and local councils?

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I welcome the fact that Workington has the opportunity to bid for the funding. It will make a difference. The communities that my hon. Friend represents are exactly the sorts of places that we set out to support when we created the towns fund and the future high streets fund. These are places that have not routinely received substantial amounts of Government funding, and that extra investment for skills, for culture, for digital and transport infrastructure and for the revitalisation of places and high streets will be really welcomed by local people. As I have said to other colleagues, I very much look forward to seeing the plans come to fruition if Workington is successful.

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Contrary to the Secretary of State’s remarks, the Public Accounts Committee says that the criteria for funding the towns fund were insufficient and “vague”. So, once again, I ask the Minister to release in full the accounting officer’s assessment of the scheme.

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I know that the hon. Gentleman is an experienced Member of the House, but I do not think he understands what accounting officer’s advice is and how it corresponds with advice from the permanent secretary before the Public Accounts Committee. The permanent secretary is—[Interruption.] Well, I’m afraid that says it all. A member of the Committee himself does not know. The permanent secretary is the accounting officer. The permanent secretary at the time wrote the advice. The permanent secretary gave evidence before the hon. Gentleman’s Committee and shared a summary of the accounting officer’s advice with the Committee that the hon. Gentleman is a member of, so I am rather confused about what his point is.

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I welcome the £1 million already given to Telford and Wrekin as part of the accelerated delivery fund—a Labour council, by the way. I just wonder whether the Secretary of State will have time to look at the excellent proposals from Telford’s town board, particularly around maths and digital education and the ambitions for links into local manufacturing. Can I put in a very strong plea that, while we want to level up northern towns, we do not forget the west midlands towns? Can I also put in a very strong bid for the full £25 million, please?

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I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I had the pleasure of visiting Telford recently, and I met the chief executive of Telford and Wrekin Council and members of the town board, who showed me some of their exciting proposals, including the beautiful new bridge linking Telford railway station with the town centre and the science and technology section of the town that they are hoping to build adjacent to the shopping centre. That seemed a very strong proposal to me, but of course I look forward to receiving the proposals in due course.

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Clearly, this issue is just as big north of the border as it is in the rest of the UK. If I look out of the window of my office in my home town of Tain, I can see many formerly prosperous businesses and shops that are now boarded up and gone. I would not be surprised to see tumbleweed blowing down Tain’s high street sometime in the future. May I ask the Secretary of State two things? First, is this going to be recognised by means of Barnett consequentials—that is, with the money going to the Scottish Government? If so, will he use his good offices to persuade the Scottish Government to spend the money where it desperately needs to be spent—that is, in the town centres the length and breadth of Scotland that are falling into ruination and disrepair?

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I have allowed the hon. Gentleman to ask two things, but let me just point out that we must have one question per person, or else we will be here all day.

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Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I shall try to be swift. As I said in an earlier answer, the question of Barnettisation will be settled at the spending review, and hon. Members do not have very long to wait for the answers there. On the hon. Gentleman’s broader point, he is absolutely right. The challenges facing smaller cities and towns are consistent across the whole of the United Kingdom. That is the reason we set up the towns fund, and that is why we having been doing town and city deals in all parts of the UK, including a large number in Scotland.

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I think it shows how far Labour has fallen from its natural home that it is essentially condemning funding going into some of the most deprived communities in our nation. That is absolutely astonishing to witness. The residents of Bishop Auckland are incredibly grateful to have been shortlisted not only for the towns fund but for the future high streets fund, and to have received £750,000 of accelerated funding. We are doing some incredible cross-party and cross-community working on our towns board to secure that deal, and I look forward to that bid going in. My question to the Secretary of State is: if the towns fund is opened up in future, will he seriously consider including Spennymoor in that, because Bishop Auckland is a tale of four towns, and Spennymoor deserves its fair share?

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I thank my hon. Friend, who has been a fantastic champion for her constituency since she was elected just a short time ago. As she says, it is a reflection on the Labour party—at least in Westminster—that it wants to pour cold water on a fund that is doing so much good work in communities across the country. Fortunately, that is quite a different picture from what we are seeing from local councils of all political persuasions elsewhere, which really want to get on board and make a huge success of these proposals. We will be doing a competitive phase next year, and I look forward to an application from the other parts of my hon. Friend’s constituency.

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From this towns fund being handed out to Tory seats, to the money being squandered on covid contracts and the ferry contract being awarded to a company with no ferries, this is all part of a very murky picture, is it not? How can my constituents have any confidence at all that public money is being well spent when cronyism, mates’ rates and political manoeuvring seem to be at the heart of so much Government decision making, not to mention downright incompetence?

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Well, I did not detect a question there, other than a whole series of pointless innuendos. We are going to keep focusing on what the public want us to do, which is investing and levelling up in the communities that need it the most despite all the challenges of covid, and that is exactly what this fund does.

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The towns fund is, of course, an England-only fund, but the Government’s levelling-up agenda means supporting towns right across the UK, including Rhyl in my constituency. Will my right hon. Friend commit to exploring opportunities for the shared prosperity fund and other sources of financial assistance to help redevelop Rhyl’s Queen’s Market?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that the shared prosperity fund will be a great opportunity for the whole United Kingdom to come together; for us to be doing work not dissimilar to the activities of the towns fund and the high streets fund, investing in skills, transport, technology and in place in a way we simply have not been able to do while those funds have been directed through the bureaucracy and regulation of the European Union. As we design the UK’s shared prosperity fund and bring it to fruition in the early part of next year, I will certainly be listening to my hon. Friend and his colleagues in Wales.

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Among the damning judgments issued last week by the Public Accounts Committee was that

“we are not convinced by the rationales for selecting some towns and not others. The justification offered by ministers…are vague and based on sweeping assumptions. In some cases, towns were chosen by ministers despite being identified by officials as the very lowest priority… The Department has also not been open about the process it followed… This lack of transparency has fuelled accusations of political bias in the selection process”.

That is just a selection of findings from one page of a 21-page report. I have seen the summary accounting officer assessment provided in confidence to the Public Accounts Committee, which most Members taking part in today’s session have not, and I do not think that summary exonerates Ministers in anything like the way the Secretary of State is claiming. Why will his Department not allow that summary to be published, so that hon. Members can do their job and decide for themselves?

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I think I have already answered that point: the accounting officer’s advice is not routinely published within Whitehall. That is a matter for the Department and the civil service more generally. However, it has been shared with the Public Accounts Committee, and I am pleased to see that at least one member of the Committee actually bothered to read it, unlike others present in the Chamber. It is a fair summary, and my permanent secretary has attested to that.

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I thank my right hon. Friend for the answers he has given thus far. London is effectively a network of towns and villages, not just the centre of London. What hope can he give to parts of London that are suffering from deprivation, and need capital and revenue investment just to get them started on the route to recovery?

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We have actually included communities within larger cities in both the towns fund and the future high streets fund, because my hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that there can be a world of difference between Birmingham city centre and the high street in Brierley Hill, and we want to support those places as well. There were beneficiaries of the future high streets fund in London, for example: I recall Putney putting in a bid that will now be considered by the Department, and it is absolutely right that we do that. Covid has of course brought profound challenges even to some of our most robust city centres, including London, Manchester and Birmingham, so it will be a focus of my Department’s work in the weeks and months ahead. We will give what support we can, working with Mayors, city council leaders and the GLA to provide further support for the renewal and adaptation of those places.

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Stoke-on-Trent is a city of six towns and three highly motivated Conservative Members of Parliament. As my right hon. Friend knows, we work together to ensure joined-up strategic thinking and maximum benefit for everyone in Stoke-on-Trent. On behalf of all three Stoke-on-Trent MPs, will he ensure that the bid process for the next round of town deals will allow for a Stoke deal featuring three of our towns, Hanley, Longton and Tunstall, and will recognise the importance of investment in our towns in the future vision for our city as a whole?

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My hon. Friend and I have discussed this previously. The criteria designed by the Department for the towns fund placed an upper limit on the size of communities that were able to benefit from it, because it was supposed to support towns and smaller cities. I appreciate that the circumstances of Stoke are unusual because, although a city, it is a collection of historical towns, so it was not able to be considered as part of the process. When we design the criteria for the competitive phase, we will take into consideration her view that collections of towns, even within a broader city, might be eligible.

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When I consider the constituencies of the hon. Members on the Government Benches who have contributed so far—indeed, the constituencies of other hon. Members who are in their places—such as Wolverhampton North East, Ashfield, Warrington South, Workington and Bishop Auckland, and I see the hon. Members for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell) and for Shipley (Philip Davies), every single one of those constituencies scored less than Ellesmere Port and Neston in the same borough as the City of Chester, and yet they were awarded the money and Ellesmere Port was not. We know that rankings are important, because the Secretary of State used the ranking of Newark in the east midlands to justify money being awarded to his own constituency. Let me ask him specifically: who took the decision to exclude Ellesmere Port town centre from the money allocation, and what criteria were used?

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I have been very clear that, on the advice of civil servants, we gave the opportunity to bid for a town deal to the 40 most highly ranked. Then, in accordance with the advice of civil servants, we applied a qualitative judgment in coming to conclusions on the others. As the civil servants made clear, some of those communities were very finely balanced, and it was important to take a geographical spread and a spread of different types of community, whether ex-coalfield, seaside, market towns, or sub-high streets and communities within great cities.

With respect to Ellesmere Port, I look forward to receiving a bid in the competitive phase to come. I point out that the Department chose Ellesmere Port to be one of the 14 pilots for our high streets taskforce. I hope that the significant amounts of money that we are investing and spending in Ellesmere Port are making a difference and regenerating its high street.

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I have been watching on with great admiration at the way in which Labour-run Kirklees Council has been working closely with my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mark Eastwood) on their transformational bid to the towns fund for the town of Dewsbury in the constituency neighbouring mine. The Secretary of State kindly visited Holmfirth, one of my market towns, a year ago. Will he look at another round of the towns fund and, if so, may I share that around my numerous communities, so not just Holmfirth but Marsden, Slaithwaite, Milnsbridge and Lindley, to do something similar to what they are doing in Dewsbury?

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I had a very enjoyable visit to Holmfirth, one of the most special places in Yorkshire. I will be delighted to consider proposals from the town in the future. We will be bringing forward a competitive phase next year, as I said. From comments across the House today, we have heard loud and clear that there is great support for the towns fund. Colleagues of all political persuasions want to see more towns benefiting from it, so I will be taking that message to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor.

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I am a member of the Runcorn town board, and I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury), present on the Front Bench, is also supportive of the bid being developed for Runcorn. The time and the bid are exciting, because we have seen the development of the Runcorn station quarter and we have a fantastic community initiative to restore the locks of the Bridgewater canal and the link back to the Manchester ship canal. Given what has been said today, will the Secretary of State give us an assurance, that Runcorn will not be treated less favourably than other town centres in Conservative constituencies?

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Absolutely not.

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I thank the Secretary of State for his answers so far and, indeed, for giving Newcastle-under-Lyme a shout-out in his initial answer. The £1 million we have had so far has been put to good use. We also have the future high streets funding and the rest of our town deal bid to come. That will represent more investment in Newcastle-under-Lyme than it had in 100 years of Labour MPs and many Labour Governments during that time.

I have to tell the Secretary of State, however, that the coronavirus pandemic is having a lasting effect on our town centre. Many retail units are closing and seem unlikely to reopen. Does he agree that this pandemic in fact presents an opportunity to rethink our town centres and, particularly in Newcastle-under-Lyme, to ensure that they thrive, by repurposing retail space into, potentially, office or residential space?

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I should say, just to clarify my answer to the hon. Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), because he seemed confused by it, that the point I was making was that absolutely, his bid will be treated with all fairness and I hope it is successful.

With respect to my hon. Friend’s question, Newcastle-under-Lyme is a town that I know very well and I can see the great proposals coming forward there. He makes the same very important point that a number of colleagues have made today—namely, that covid will accelerate market forces in our towns and city centres. It will make investment of this kind more important than ever and even more prescient than when these funds were created. I hope that they will be a shot in the arm—a boost of confidence—for communities as they begin to recover from the covid pandemic, and that they will help them to adapt and evolve, turning empty shops into homes, and beautiful buildings back to the uses that they were made for.

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I support boosting towns. The Secretary of State talks about a robust procedure and fine balance. There are plenty of communities in Stockport that would be worthy recipients of towns fund money, including Reddish, so what instead attracted him to Cheadle? Was it its unemployment rate, at 3% below the north-west average? Was it its deprivation ranking, decile seven, making it one of the north’s least deprived areas? Was it its low shop vacancy rate? Was it his Department’s assessment ranking it the 535th priority out of 541 towns? Or was it the Tory majority of just 2,366? [Interruption.]

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Order. No clapping from the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden). If he wishes to make some audible sound, that is a different matter.

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Well, it is not a terribly good look for the Labour party to say that it does not want investment to go into Cheadle. I think that the good people of Cheadle will welcome the fact that they are part of the town deal, and I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mary Robinson) will be working very hard with her town board to bring forward exciting proposals for the place. We are working extremely well with Labour councils and MPs throughout the north-west, though perhaps not with the hon. Gentleman, to bring forward proposals, and we have just heard from one in Cheshire.

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May I urge the Secretary of State to ignore the siren voices on the Opposition Benches and thank him for including Shipley in the towns fund, which is very much needed? I am sure my constituents will be very interested to hear that the Labour party seems to be indicating that it does not think that Shipley should have been included in the towns fund. May I ask the Secretary of State to go further? Although it is very much needed and welcomed in Shipley, my towns of Bingley and Baildon would also very much welcome this funding and very much need it. I hope that he will do future towns funds and that Baildon and Bingley will both be included.

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I thank my hon. Friend and will bear that in mind when we come to the competitive phase of the process. He makes the broader point very powerfully—namely, that from what we have heard this afternoon, Labour Front Benchers are now explicitly opposed to investment in these 100 places. He can take back to the people of Shipley and Bradford that, if there were a Labour Government, this funding would certainly not be flowing to their communities.

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I thank the Secretary of State for his responses so far. Secretary of State, it is my understanding that local enterprise partnerships—

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Order. The hon. Gentleman does not say “Secretary of State” to the Secretary of State. The hon. Gentleman has to say, “Madam Deputy Speaker, does the Secretary of State…” I am sure eventually I will achieve my ambition of having the hon. Member for Strangford use the third person and not the second person. He does not address the Secretary of State directly.

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Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. 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.

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From memory, the fund he is referring to was established by the Secretary of State at the Department for International Trade, but I will take his representations to my right hon. Friend and ensure that he gets a fulsome answer as quickly as possible.

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I apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I have to rush off after the Secretary of State’s answer for a Westminster Hall debate. The Conference of Peripheral Maritime Regions estimated that Scotland will lose out on €840 million by 2027 due to the loss of access to EU regional development funds. Can the Secretary of State confirm that the funds apportioned to Scotland, assuming that they will be, from the stronger towns fund and the shared prosperity fund will make up that gap and that Scotland will not lose out on this substantial funding?

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We have made a manifesto commitment that I have repeated many times in this place that we will be bringing forward a UK shared prosperity fund. Further details on that will be set out at the spending review. It will ensure that all the nations of the United Kingdom receive the same level of funding in this Parliament as they received from the EU structural funds that we are moving away from.

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I have spoken to businesses across Burnley and Padiham, and they are as excited as I am about the prospect of a towns deal. It will bring together the strength of the private sector with Government investment to level up and spur on our economy. I urge the Secretary of State to move at pace to release the next tranche of towns fund deals, so that we can get Burnley’s bid in.

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My hon. Friend makes a strong case for Burnley. As I say, we will bring forward that competitive phase early next year, and before the end of this year, I hope to be announcing the successful bidders for the future high streets fund, where we will be ensuring that up to £25 million of investment flows to dozens of communities across the country. It is another fund designed before covid, but it will be ever more important as we see the pressures wreaked on our high streets by the pandemic.

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It was really distressing to see such critical funding for our regions mired in political favouritism. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that the shared prosperity fund does not suffer the same fate? Will he confirm that the north-east will receive from the shared prosperity fund at least the £1 billion that it would have got from the European structural funds?

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As I have already said, a fair and robust procedure was used to determine the places, and many places adjacent to the hon. Lady’s constituency have benefited. I think of Blyth, for example—a community that needed investment. It saw very little of it under the last Labour Government and will now, I hope, be benefiting. She represents a great city. That was not the primary focus of the towns fund, as the name rather suggests.

With the UK shared prosperity fund, we will be ensuring that each of the nations of the United Kingdom receives the same funding as they did under the EU structural funds. We fundamentally believe that we can design better, more outcomes-focused funding streams than the European Union was ever able to do during our long years of membership. We will bring forward more details on that very soon.

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May I ask my right hon. Friend to comment on the element of the Public Accounts Committee report that says his Department misrepresented the National Audit Office by falsely asserting that it had concluded that the selection process had been robust? I ask that because it is important, surely, that the Government respect the work of the National Audit Office—now more than ever, when we are in an enormous public expenditure crisis. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that he and other Ministers will respect the work of the National Audit Office?

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As a former member of the Public Accounts Committee and a former Treasury Minister, I hold our colleagues at the National Audit Office in the highest esteem. They prepared a report that informed the hearing that was held by the Public Accounts Committee. At the Committee hearing, the permanent secretary of my Department gave evidence, answered questions and made it very clear that, in his opinion, a robust procedure had been followed. In my opinion, it was disappointing that the Chair of the Committee chose to give comments even before she had held that hearing, as that rather suggested that her approach was more partisan than one would expect from the Chair of that Committee.

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Officials advised the Secretary of State to choose “relatively few” low priority towns. My constituents in Crosby accept that Crosby did not qualify because it was just outside the top 100. What they do not understand is why Southport—456 on the list—qualified and met the criteria that the Secretary of State described earlier. Will he confirm once and for all that the only politicisation on view today is the allocation of the towns fund to Tory key seats such as Southport?

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The hon. Gentleman is quite wrong. One only has to look at his neighbours to see good examples of that. I think of Birkenhead, for example, which I do not think was high on the list of Conservative targets at the last election, but which is now the proud beneficiary of the right to bid for a town deal. I think of St Helens, where, as I have said, I met his Labour party colleagues—two fantastic MPs who are working hard on their town deal board to bring forward great proposals for the benefit of their local communities. A small number of places were chosen from what was deemed to be the low priority category, and that was exactly—

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No. The hon. Gentleman has a bit of a habit of saying things in the House of Commons that are not exactly accurate. Sixty communities were not chosen from the low priority category; 17 such communities were chosen. [Interruption.] From his sudden change of demeanour, I take it that he is apologising for his remarks.

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Order. Whether or not the hon. Member for Croydon North (Steve Reed) is apologising for his remarks is not a matter for me, but remarks should not be made while hon. Members are sitting down and do not have the floor, especially not from the Front Bench.

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As a member of the Public Accounts Committee, I have read the summary of the accounting officer’s assessment, and can also confirm that our report says that the permanent secretary

“was satisfied the selection process met the requirements of propriety and regularity”.

In King’s Lynn, we welcome the opportunity to benefit from £25 million of investment. Will my right hon. Friend visit King’s Lynn to talk about our ambitious plan to create more opportunities for young people and innovative businesses, for an enhanced town centre with more cycling and walking, and that builds on our historic court and waterfront?

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Madam Deputy Speaker, I apologise; I spoke in error a moment ago. It was not 17 communities that were chosen from the low priority category, but 12 —even fewer than I said a moment ago.

I am pleased that my hon. Friend was able to read the accounting officer’s advice and that he considers it to be a fair summary that sets the record straight in terms of some comments that we have heard today. I would be delighted to visit King’s Lynn. It is exactly the sort of community that should be benefiting from these funds, and its bid for the future high streets fund will be considered carefully in the coming weeks.

Virtual participation in proceedings concluded (Order, 4 June).