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Town Deals: Covid-19 Recovery

Volume 699: debated on Wednesday 14 July 2021

Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Order, 25 February).

[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]

Good morning. I remind hon. Members participating, virtually and physically, that they must arrive for the start of a debate in Westminster Hall and are expected to remain for the entire debate.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Town Deals and covid-19 recovery

It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell.

For too long, towns across the country have been in decline. Once bustling with shoppers and visitors, they have become blighted by high levels of deprivation, a lack of opportunity, and empty shops, leaving a chasm, where there was once aspiration, for entire communities, particularly across the north of England. That is why I welcome the Government’s commitment to levelling up and unleashing the economic potential of towns across the country.

In the course of this Parliament, the towns fund will invest £3.6 billion across our country in communities such as Southport, Barrow-in-Furness, Blackpool, Norwich, Darlington and many more. It will help to reshape and unleash the economic potential of 101 towns through regeneration, connectivity, skills and culture. 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, thereby increasing footfall, driving growth and supporting local businesses. That is exactly what Lord Street, in my constituency, and other parts of Southport need.

The pandemic has kept people away from the high street. Although more people shopping online is nothing new, restaurants have also adapted to a new model of working. People are eating takeaways and restaurant meals at home and they are shopping online. As convenient as that is, and as good as the hospitality sector in Southport 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 will have changed remarkably. In tourist economies such as Southport, that is not an insignificant thing. That is why we need to think differently about town centres and make them a destination, thereby giving people a real reason not only to visit but to spend money and to make return visits.

Town deals provide a meaningful avenue to rebuild many communities across the country as we emerge from the pandemic. That is why I very much welcome the bid submitted by my constituency: it has the potential to drive forward growth and investment and to create opportunity. I want to illustrate the benefits of the towns fund by informing hon. Members about how it will benefit Southport.

Let me explain for those who may be unfamiliar with my constituency that Southport is a coastal town in the north of England with a large tourism and hospitality sector. Its high street, Lord Street, was the inspiration behind the tree-lined boulevards of Paris today, including the Champs-Élysées. Today, however, Southport faces many of the issues that sadly are common in many northern towns that have missed out on decades of regeneration. Those who come to Southport will see the grandeur of what it once was, but sadly with a rising number of empty shops and marred by an increasing number of takeaways and vaping shops. We have improvements in educational standards, large-scale investment coming in and hundreds of new homes being built, but the town centre, like others across the country, looks like it needs support.

We started with £1 million of accelerated funding for shovel-ready projects: £900,000 was used to rejuvenate the market hall as a state-of-the-art facility with an innovative approach to dining—it opens next week—and a further £100,000 to create a “boulevard of light” on Lord Street. That, combined with securing a £37.5 million investment in my town overall, is allowing us to unlock our economic potential.

I pay tribute to Rob Fletcher, chair of the Southport town deal board, and to all those who have served on it, including the council executive member and officers, local businesses, leaders in health and education, and the consultant Turley. I also serve on the board, and that is what makes the towns fund different: not only do the Government believe in the economic potential of these towns, but Members have been invited to be directly involved with the projects and personally associated with the submissions. Together with stakeholders across my constituency, I have lobbied and supported the bid from day one.

The funding will see £30 million invested to create a new theatre, conference and eventing centre on the waterfront and a business incubator space, bringing highly skilled, highly paid jobs back to our town centre. The Southport town deal bid will help our town rebuild its reputation as the premier tourist destination of the north-west and allow us to attract millions of new visitors and business delegates. It has the potential to unlock £350 million of investment in our local economy. That is why the towns fund is so important. It is not just a spend; it is a true investment.

Key to the success of the deal is the private sector contributing many more millions into the local economy. Although I welcome Southport’s receiving such significant investment, town deals alone cannot solve the problem of dwindling town centres. Towns must change. I would like to say three things about that, and I shall say them very briefly as I know others wish to speak.

First, I want to raise with the Minister the issue of business rates, which are a significant barrier to businesses, particularly small businesses, in my constituency. Many of the buildings that stand empty in Southport today are large heritage buildings that are too big and too expensive to maintain; many businesses simply cannot afford the rising costs associated with their upkeep. If town centres are to resemble anything like what they once were, or even to adapt to the new normal, the Government must overhaul the business rates system and make it easy for businesses to open up in town centres. That would help to reward innovation and risk.

Secondly, I want briefly to mention parking charges. Local authorities have a role to play in creating change, encouraging investment and bringing people back to our town centres. It is extraordinary that, in this day and age, councils still take a short-sighted approach to parking. Local residents cannot travel into their own town centres and support small businesses without facing exorbitant charges or receiving penalties. They should be able to do so. Local authorities, including Sefton Council, should enable that to happen as soon as possible. They should incentivise shopping, as they do in many other towns—for example, Lytham, across the Ribble estuary, provides a period of free parking. My constituents want the same.

Thirdly, connectivity has a huge role to play in ensuring that towns can attract a greater number of visitors. That gives me an opportunity to once again raise with the Minister two important pieces of rail infrastructure that are critical if the Government are serious, as I believe they are, about levelling up towns across the country: the maintenance of a direct rail service to Manchester Piccadilly and the reopening of the Burscough curves, connecting my town with the northern corridor via Preston. If our economy is to bounce back strongly, the Government need to do more to ensure that towns, particularly coastal towns, are not disconnected from major rail networks. Connecting my constituency to Manchester and Preston is just as important to levelling up as are faster trains to London.

I recognise that, over the last year and a half, the Government have spent a total of £400 billion on measures to help our economy recover from the pandemic. In particular, I welcome the levelling-up fund, the furlough scheme, the business rates holiday, bounce back loans, new recovery loans, the self-employment income support scheme and the cut to VAT—and who in the tourism and hospitality sector could forget the eat out to help out scheme, which was a real lifeline for many constituents and businesses in Southport?

I have reason to be optimistic for Southport as we emerge from the pandemic. We have submitted a bid to the restoring your railway fund to reopen the Burscough curves. The major department store Beales has announced that it will return to our high street in August, its third reopening after those in Poole and Peterborough. Southport will get its own version of the London Eye, thanks to Pleasureland owner Norman Wallis. I look forward to Southport Cove being built and the £40 million investment it will bring and the jobs it will create. Despite not being in Manchester, it was ranked among the 15 projects to look forward to in Manchester by the Manchester Evening News. Our £37.5 million town deal, the second largest allocation in the country, is a testament to how right they are and to how much town deals can drive growth and investment. The Government are laying the foundations that will improve the chances for many in the future.

The Government are unlocking the full potential of towns and communities by giving them the support that they need to thrive. Given that the fund was announced at a time when the Government were tackling an unprecedented health crisis, that is particularly welcome. Some might have been forgiven for saying that the Government should have paused or slowed down and focused on the pandemic. Others might have encouraged a complete cessation of the deal. The Government have been giving hope and optimism to places such as Southport by helping communities build back better as we overcome the pandemic.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate the hon. Member for Southport (Damien Moore) on securing this important debate.

It is vital that we level up areas left behind by rampant regional inequalities and a decade of austerity. My constituency of Leicester East suffers from structural disadvantages compared with wealthier areas of the country. The average weekly income for full-time employees in Leicester East is £420. That is £130 a week less than the east Midlands as a whole and £160 less than the UK average. The proportion of people claiming unemployment benefits is also higher in my constituency than it is at the regional and national level, as is the rate of food bank use, which has worsened during the pandemic.

I fear that the town deals will not address those severe inequalities. Indeed, the policy has faced repeated accusations of cronyism, gerrymandering and prioritising funding for Conservative-supporting areas. More than 80% of the towns set to receive Government funding through the £3.6 billion town fund are represented by Conservative MPs. Among the 86 towns that have had funding deals agreed so far, 72 are Conservative-held, five are in areas with both a Conservative and a Labour MP, and just nine are in Labour-held seats. That means that so far £1.6 billion-worth of investment has been signed off in Conservative constituencies compared with just over £200 million in seats held by Labour.

The process of selection and the criteria used by the Government have come under scrutiny, with both the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office producing reports that were critical of the lack of transparency and impartiality. Rather than the 100 towns with the highest score being selected, it was decided that the highest priority towns in each region would be eligible by default, with Ministers then free to choose from the others regardless of their need, so some towns that scored very high on need lost out. For instance, my community in Leicester is one of the most deprived areas of the country, yet we were not eligible for funding, so it is hard to escape the conclusion that the towns fund is a vehicle for political corruption that uses the rhetoric of combating regional inequality to mask its nefarious party-political intentions.

Similar concerns exist about the Government’s levelling-up fund. Among 93 English regions placed in the priority group of three tiers to receive money from the £4.8 billion fund, 31 are included while not ranked as being in the top third most deprived places by the average deprivation score. Of those 31, 26 are entirely represented by Conservative MPs, with the others having at least one Conservative MP. Four places are in the uppermost level for funding despite being ranked in the bottom third of English regions by the deprivation score. All those areas have Conservative MPs, including Richmond (Yorks), the Chancellor’s constituency, which is among the top fifth of the most prosperous places in England according to the average deprivation score. That raises severe concerns that the levelling-up fund and the towns deals are not designed to address regional inequality, but instead are designed to benefit the Conservative party.

To assuage those concerns, I urge the Minister to publish the funding metric as a matter of urgency. I would also be grateful if he confirmed how much of the towns fund and the levelling-up fund is really allocated funding, and how much is repurposed funding that was already covered by previous initiatives.

I fear that there is a dangerous pattern emerging with the Government’s strategy. After 10 years of devastating austerity, they are now turning on the taps of public spending in areas that are electorally convenient for them. We cannot allow this hugely cynical pork barrel politics to continue. It is gravely damaging not only for neglected communities across the country, but for the health of our democracy. We need a bold, nationwide and internationalist recovery from coronavirus, including a radical green new deal to rebuild the country with a more just and sustainable economy. Instead of this damaging agenda in which only certain areas are allocated funding based on whether it benefits the governing party, we desperately need a recognition that in our country of deep and unequal wealth, the top 1% should be asked to contribute a bit more in order to fund the services that the entire country relies on.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Rosindell, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Damien Moore) on securing the debate. I enjoyed his speech, but there was one notable omission. He did not mention Southport’s most famous son, Red Rum, who lived in a stable behind a garage. He cured his ills on the beach and won three grand nationals from there. Hopefully, that will be remembered in Southport’s towns deal.

Lowestoft has its own towns deal, which will play a key role in the post-covid recovery and in transforming the town, making it a compelling place to live in, work in and visit. The town investment plan was produced with the Lowestoft place board, on which I sit, under the chairmanship of Stephen Javes, and special thanks must go to the officer team at East Suffolk Council, who are now hard at work in turning an exciting vision into a compelling reality. In many ways, covid has accelerated processes of change in our towns that were under way in any case, but it has hit Lowestoft particularly hard, and the immediate challenge that we face is to get people back into the town, where there are so many independent businesses offering bespoke and special products and experiences. That is the objective of the Bouncing Back campaign, which is being promoted by the Lowestoft Journal and East Suffolk Council.

There is also a need for private landlords to play their role in coming forward with realistic rents and lease expectations that properly take into account current market conditions. We need to step off the unseemly not-so-merry-go-round whereby tenants, full of expectation, sign leases with the benefit of a rent-free period. When that ends, they find their businesses unable to sustain an unrealistically high rent. They leave, then someone else comes in, and the whole saga is repeated. We need to stop this. I appreciate that it is not necessarily a matter for the Minister, but it is a matter for my previous profession as a chartered surveyor. From my experience over the years—I have not been in practice for more than 11 years—the commercial property sector has been much slower than, say, the agricultural sector to accept market realities and to adjust rents downwards when they need to go down, and in line with what tenants can afford to pay. Perhaps commercial landlords are clinging to the notion of the upward-only rent review clause, which is now very much a thing of the past. They and their lenders should fully accept—I acknowledge that some of them do—that this is in the past and work in the new reality.

The Lowestoft towns deal is based on the town’s rich history and heritage, and it seeks to take full advantage of the new opportunities emerging in the marine environment, in renewable energy and sustainable fishing, and in showcasing the south beach and the close proximity to both the Suffolk Broads and the Norfolk Broads. The initial public sector funding of £24.9 million will unlock a minimum of £354 million of private sector investment. A wide variety of projects are proposed, including the station quarter, the historic quarter, the cultural quarter and the marine science campus. They may well require some additional pump-priming from sources such the levelling-up fund and the community renewal fund. My concern is that, at present, Lowestoft is unfairly disadvantaged in submitting bids to those funds. Despite high levels of deprivation, the town is neither in category 1 for the levelling-up fund nor is it designated a priority place for the community renewal fund.

Lowestoft is remarkably similar in many ways to Great Yarmouth, 10 miles up the coast, with the same challenges and opportunities. Yet Yarmouth is in category 1 and is a priority place. I do not begrudge Great Yarmouth that; it is right that it should have those designations, but so should Lowestoft. Nelson ward in Yarmouth is the 39th most deprived nationally, but Kirkley in Lowestoft is the 25th. In Yarmouth 20% of children live in low-income families but 25.5% do in Lowestoft. In Yarmouth, 22.5% of the population have been diagnosed with a long-term, life-limiting illness or disability; in Lowestoft, that figure is 28%.

The explanation given for that disparity and unfairness is that Lowestoft is now part of a large district council area, the recently formed East Suffolk Council, where there are far better-off places, such as Aldeburgh and Southwold, which conceal this hidden deprivation, though it is not so hidden from my perspective. However, I am not sure that argument holds water. King’s Lynn in west Norfolk—again, somewhere I have no grievance against, primarily because I used to spend summer holidays there with my late grandmother—is a priority place and in category 1. I do not have a problem with that. I do not deny that there are deprivation challenges in King’s Lynn, but is that really the case in places such as Brancaster and Burnham Market, which has been dubbed “Chelsea-on-sea”?

I am not holding out a begging bowl. What I am looking for is fairness and a level playing field. At present, we do not have that for Lowestoft. The Government have been helpful in enabling us to secure the funding for the Gull Wing bridge and the Lowestoft flood defence scheme, two vital infrastructure projects that are now under construction. Moving forward, we must be given the same opportunity as other similar places, in being able to submit bids to the levelling-up fund, the community renewal fund and the forthcoming UK shared prosperity fund, from the same place on the starting grid as towns and places with similar challenges.

I have written to the Minister highlighting these concerns. I have spoken to him and he has listened patiently. I urge him and his colleagues to look again and to right this wrong.

I thank the hon. Member for Southport (Damien Moore) and congratulate him on introducing the debate, to which the Minister will reply. I always like to give a Northern Ireland perspective to such debates and say what we have been able to do there. I hope to be able to support the Minister. The reason we are able to do these things through our Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment in Northern Ireland is that the central Government here ensured that all parts of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland had the opportunity to respond in a positive fashion.

I understand that health is not a part of this debate, but that is another area where we could act collectively, with all the regions together. It is better to have a single strategy and purpose for us all to work together. That is just a by the way comment—it is not for this debate.

I have been astounded by the resilience and determination of our high street sector during this dreadful time. I always make it my business to shop local, and I know that other Members do the same. If I can get it locally, that is where I will buy it. If I cannot get it locally, I will look elsewhere, but I make it my business to shop in the wee bakery down the road and the clothes shop on the other side of the square. If I need any hardware stuff, I will go to Ray Grahams in Newtownards or N. G. Bell’s in Ballywalter. I do all my shopping locally because I know how important it is to support the high street. Before covid happened, we were getting to a stage where there were no vacancies whatsoever on our high street. Some have appeared over the last period of time but, thank goodness, most of them have been filled.

The high street, by and large, has been very resilient. From changing regulations to decisions made overnight, they have carried out what this Government have required of them with a stoicism that is the best of British, yet the facts are clear: for many, the threat of another period of lockdown will be the end of their business. Many high street businesses need the trade that they had before covid, and even if we get back to where we were then, I suspect that we will not see that level of trade again until we move out of covid in its entirety. Those businesses need continued support in the interim, and I am thankful that the Government recognise that need and are looking to meet it.

In Northern Ireland, our Minister for the Economy has put in place two schemes, the high street stimulus scheme and the holiday at home voucher scheme. Every person in Northern Ireland aged 18 and over will be eligible to apply for a pre-paid card worth £100 to spend in the local high street, which is designed to stimulate local businesses, including retail and hospitality sector outlets. Following the pandemic, that is a very positive scheme. Eligible individuals aged 18 or over will be asked to apply for that pre-paid card through a dedicated online portal. The card must be used in bricks and mortar businesses in Northern Ireland, and cannot be used online. Some online businesses say that that is a disappointment, but the scheme being specific along those lines means that people have to physically go to the high street, which is what we want to see. We want footfall to return and we want to see people out and about. It is encouraging that those high street stops that were able to open throughout covid-19 received lots of footfall, especially in my home town of Newtownards. The chamber of trade there has done some incredibly good stuff, and should be commended for it. The high street stimulus scheme means that some 1.4 million people in Northern Ireland will spend £140 million on our high streets, rather than online. It is a good scheme; it will have a multiplier effect that will help bring many more customers back through the doors of local shops in the retail, hospitality and other sectors.

The holiday at home voucher scheme will allow Northern Ireland households to claim back 50% for a stay of two nights or more in certified accommodation. This is another scheme that is very specific to the hospitality trade, because we in Northern Ireland probably depend on tourism more than most districts, although many colleagues in the House from Scotland, Wales and England will tell me that tourism is a key factor for them as well. Other vouchers will offer 50% off visits to attractions and tourism experience providers up to a value of £20. The central economic theme of my local council, Ards and North Down Borough Council, is tourism, because—I say this honestly, and very proudly—we live in a beautiful area. I live near Strangford Lough, and I am very fortunate to live there. It is a key tourist attraction. The Mount Stewart estate, which the National Trust is involved in, is a headquarters for us: it is a place of great historical value, and I have extended an invitation to the Minister of State for Northern Ireland to come over for a visit sometime in August. We also have the aquarium at Portaferry, the water sports and potential for tourism at Strangford Lough, and many other historical places to visit, so tourism is a really good theme for our council, and those moneys through the voucher scheme and so on have been able to help with that.

Vouchers will be allocated on a first come, first served basis, and each household can apply for each type of voucher. Households can then claim their voucher money back by uploading their receipt and voucher details online. The scheme will be launched in the autumn, because we figure that in the autumn things might be falling back a wee bit, so it will be good to have a scheme in place to drive demand after the summer season. I believe that both those schemes are a good use of public money and I congratulate the Ministers—it was Diane Dodds and it is now Gordon Lyons—on their research and work in introducing those schemes. We all eagerly await more details on the dates of release.

I referred to the active chamber of trade in Ards, which works proactively and positively in its engagement with all the shops in the high street in Newtownards and elsewhere. I will also make a plug for a former colleague who used to sit with me in the Assembly. Simon Hamilton stepped down and is now involved with Belfast chamber of trade. He is a guy with great potential and has great acumen for his job. I think that he also sees the benefits of all those things.

However, as welcome as this scheme most certainly is, it is not enough. I hate to say that, because it sounds terrible when someone says, “This is not enough”. However, I say it to make the point that there has to be an ongoing policy and strategy, because I believe that more needs to be done to secure high street shops. I noticed that one of the shops over here—was it John Lewis?—said that it would turn into some of its shops into flats and accommodation, so there is a trend for some to take away from the high street. But I think we need to strengthen the high street and facilitate online reach with a town centre base.

We all understand that every penny sown into viable businesses helps to retain employment, and I see great potential for employment. Such businesses bring dividends to the local economy, not only to local suppliers but to Government resources through sustained tax and national insurance contributions, because when we work, we pay our national insurance and tax, so we all benefit. It is like a merry-go-round—we work and then the money returns to Government, and hopefully enough money to sustain what we are trying to do.

That is why I was very excited to hear of the town and city funding. I know that my local council—Ards and North Down Borough Council—was immediately working out how best we could revitalise our town with that funding. However, an issue was that projects had to be almost shovel-ready. Fortunately, we probably had a great many schemes that were shovel-ready, but there was a problem with the planning system; it takes months upon months to navigate it. So I suppose it is a case of having the planning system in place to ensure that these schemes can go ahead.

Again, I know that this is not within the Minister’s remit, but I ask him in his summing up to say whether he has had any discussions with the Minister for the Economy in Northern Ireland, to exchange ideas and see what we can do to help each other, because I believe that wherever we are in this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, we should help each other. I also believe that we have ideas that go well in Scotland, Northern Ireland, England and Wales. We can do it better together, and I certainly wish to encourage that.

I know that my local council is making plans to prepare for new tranches of funding and I ask Ministers back home to work closely with local councillors to ensure that the funding goes where the need is. Local councils are on the frontline; they have the staff and the local councillors to push the strategy and the policies, so I think councils are the places where the schemes and the tranches of funding should be directed.

I have been made aware of a tremendous project. I am very pleased to encourage all new projects in my constituency of Strangford, and we are in discussions with planners and some of the developers who are keen to provide what I will refer to as “a staycationer’s dream”, in the form of glamping in the most beautiful part of the United Kingdom. It is a new scheme in Grey Abbey, the neighbouring village to mine. I think it has incredible potential, as do the developer and the council.

However, we need infrastructure in place to secure this wonderful environmental proposal, which will bring money into the local economy as well as preserving the beauty of nature in the area. That proposal is attractive because it is in an area of outstanding natural beauty, which we want to preserve. It will also be good if we can tie some tourism into that in a way that is not obtrusive or overly visible but takes advantage of that outstanding natural beauty. Can we look at towns being able to use towns funding to enhance their potential for tourism? I know the Minister will refer to tourism when he sums up, which is a key issue for all of us who are speaking and others who were not able to come to the debate.

I believe that local councils are best placed to advise the Government on how to get every penny to where it needs to go, and ultimately back into the coffers. I look forward with pleasure to the Minister’s response and the contributions of those who speak after me. I hope he will assure us that councils will be able to advise and will be involved in all future town deals.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell, and to follow the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Damien Moore) on securing this important debate, and I thank him for supporting me, in his other role as Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Parliamentary Private Secretary, with the matter of Walley’s Quarry landfill in my constituency, which I will touch on later because it relates to the town deal and the need to solve that problem before we get the benefits of the investment.

Before I talk more about Newcastle-under-Lyme, I want to start by addressing some of the comments of the hon. Member for Leicester East (Claudia Webbe). Let me quote at some length from one of her colleagues:

“For far too long the ambitions, needs and values of nine million people in towns across Britain have not been heard.

Our economic model treats cities as engines of growth, which at best drag surrounding towns along in their wake, causing life to become harder, less secure and less hopeful for too many people in towns in recent decades.

Our political system is blind to the values and experiences of people who live in our towns, wrongly treating cities as a proxy for the national opinion.

After the EU Referendum starkly exposed the growing gulf between towns and cities, it is clear that this is no longer sustainable.”

Those are brilliant words. They are the words of the shadow Foreign Secretary, the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), who represents another northern town, when she launched the Centre For Towns back in December 2017. Actually, it was the Conservative party and Government who took that agenda, ran with it and spoke to the people who felt they had not been listened to. Meanwhile, at the election, the Labour party doubled down on their votes in the cities and from people who voted remain and wanted to reverse the referendum result, whereas in most of the towns in the red wall, such as the one I have the honour to represent, people voted leave, wanted to be listened to and wanted their vote and their town to be respected. It is little wonder that the results of the election followed from that.

I believe that only 22 of the 101 towns invited to bid were in districts controlled by Conservative administrations and 39 were controlled by Labour administrations, so on the point that the hon. Member for Leicester East made, this is really about people voting with their feet, because they saw that this Government were proposing to offer something to towns that had been left behind for far too long—towns such as Wigan and Newcastle-under-Lyme. I make absolutely no apology for that, and I am really glad that the Government have finally grasped the nettle on towns that have been left behind. That is not necessarily a consequence of politics. It is as much about economics; it is about people moving to cities and the globalisation of jobs. It is also about the change in retail—many of our high streets depend on retail. I will say a bit more about that.

On 8 June, 30 towns received funding in the most recent wave of town deal funding—the Secretary of State announced a total of £725 million—one of which was Newcastle-under-Lyme. I am very proud of our bid and our board, of which I am a member. I thank Trevor McMillan, who is also the vice-chancellor of Keele University in my constituency, for his leadership of the board, and Councillor Stephen Sweeney, the deputy leader of the council, for his role on it. We put in a tremendous bid, and we managed to get nearly the full £25 million, which will be incredibly valuable in regenerating Newcastle-under-Lyme.

I also want to put in in a word for some of our other bids. There are many schemes, as the Minister knows. Newcastle College, which is one of the best further education colleges in the entire country and was one of the first ever to get “outstanding” across the board from Ofsted, has a bid for an institute of technology. Obviously, that is not within the Ministry’s remit, but there is an enabling bid with it because the site that it wants requires that we move the council’s depot, which is in completely the wrong location, to somewhere else on the site. There is an enabling bid through the levelling-up fund, and there is also a community renewal fund bid in.

I agree completely with what the hon. Member for Strangford said. We need to find better ways of helping local authorities and local community organisations to get bids. A lot of these places have not had investment and do not have the experience of putting in bids. They do not necessarily have a pipeline and things that are shovel-ready. The community renewal fund, in particular, was on a very tight timescale that also coincided with the local elections. We got a good bid together, but in some ways it is the same people who always bid for things, so I want to find ways to reach out to communities— even villages and parish councils—that could bid for some of these things but do not have the expertise or the resources to do that. We need ways to support our authorities and councils, even down to parish council level. That would be really welcome in making sure everybody can bid in to these funds in the future.

I will speak a little bit about Newcastle’s bid, which has three main objectives. First, to open up new growth opportunities through enhanced physical and digital connectivity. We will have new electric vehicle charging infrastructure and improved wi-fi across the town centre, better public transport and better cycling measures. Secondly, we will encourage increased footfall in the town centre by diversifying and enhancing it. We will demolish and redevelop lots of previous sites. Some have been demolished already with the advance funds. There is not much to point to at the moment because things are going down, but very soon things will be coming up again, and I know that will be a real moment of hope for the town.

Finally, the bid aims to channel investment into regenerating communities, particularly some of my most deprived wards such as Knutton and Chesterton. The master plan for Knutton includes improving business accommodation, a new village hall and village green, 240 new homes and improvements to road safety. There will also be investment into Chesterton and Cross Street, enabling high-quality housing for the local community—not only new housing but replenishing and replacing the existing stock.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned electric vehicle charging. Yesterday, his colleague, the hon. Member for Kensington (Felicity Buchan) proposed a ten-minute rule Bill that I think will be critical for the future if we are looking towards electric vehicles, and I was pleased to sponsor it and pleased that the hon. Lady brought that forward. The hon. Gentleman mentioned development, and I think the hon. Member for Kensington referred in her introduction yesterday to all new developments having those key charging points in place. Does he feel that that should be part of this?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. We absolutely need to ensure that we think about future technologies and those that are here today when we undertake development. We see that on the estate now; I think Speaker’s Court is having charging infrastructure installed. If we are to build new buildings, it makes sense that they should have those places for charging.

I should also mention that, as well as the £23.6 million from the town deal, we secured £11 million from the future high streets fund, which means the levelling up funding already secured by Newcastle-under-Lyme is more than £34 million, with other bids currently in. That future high streets fund bid is so crucial to the actual recovery from covid, which is the title of the debate. Unfortunately, covid has exacerbated trends that were already there in our town centre. We have lost an awful lot of tenants on our high street. We have a large high street and the Ironmarket pedestrianised area, but there is unfortunately an awful lot of empty shops at the moment.

The solution obviously cannot be more retail, because people are shopping online. We need more hospitality and housing in the town centre, and that is exactly what our future high streets bid will do, with the redevelopment of the long vacant Ryecroft site and the pulling down the old civic offices, which I believe is beginning this week, although it will take quite a while because there is a lot of asbestos and it has to be done carefully. Again, these are real signs of regeneration. Things that have been left derelict and vacant for far too long are finally being addressed by this Government, by our town deal bid and by our future high streets fund bid.

That all shows the commitment of the Government to levelling up places such as Newcastle, which are long overdue some TLC, basically. Once we have got it all done—it will take a few years—we will actually have a better high street. We will build back better. We will have more skills, with a skills centre opening in Lancaster Buildings that will help people get back into jobs or to reskill, and we will have more attractive public spaces. That is important too, because the physical infrastructure of a town centre is so important for people’s experiences.

I should mention a couple of private sector issues blighting Newcastle that I think the Ministry should have an interest in. We have a large student flat building that has been left unfinished for many years, called the Sky Buildings. It is incredibly difficult to work out who can actually handle that process. Various companies have gone through liquidations and takeovers. The investors appear to have lost their money, but that has not been finalised as such. The council is not in a position to take it over through a compulsory purchase order because it is probably more of a liability than an asset now. This sort of thing can blight town centres. We need to find better ways of dealing with unfinished buildings, where the architect or the builders have essentially gone bust and left something unfinished, which can blight an area from a long time and discourages further private sector investment coming in.

Finally, it would not be a speech from me without my mentioning Walleys quarry, the landfill in my constituency. We already have £34 million of investment, and it will be nearly £50 million if we get this institute of technology bid, and these will make Newcastle such a better place, but there is a bleak cloud hanging over the town, and that is the landfill and the odour coming from the landfill. It is principally a DEFRA issue and a Department of Health and Social Care issue. However, it requires a multi-agency approach, and Staffordshire County Council and the Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council are involved as well. Any help that the Minister’s Department can give us in getting this situation resolved as quickly as possible will be vital, because the stink from the landfill is undermining what is excellent news for Newcastle. When I announced the £23.5 million, people were obviously pleased but all the money in the world will not help unless we get this problem resolved. Through the Minister, I plead again to the Secretary of State and will raise it at Prime Minister’s questions.

Newcastle-under-Lyme has so much potential. Finally we are unlocking it with this investment. I thank the Government for what they are doing and my hon. Friend the Member for Southport for calling this important debate.

It is good to see you in the chair, Mr Rosindell. I appreciate the opportunity to respond on behalf of the Opposition,. I congratulate the hon. Member for Southport (Damien Moore) on securing the debate. Southport is a town I have enjoyed visiting but did not know it was the model for Parisian boulevards—never let it be said that Westminster Hall debates are not educational. I agree about the need for good connectivity to Manchester so my constituents can enjoy the Southport Eye, and I look forward to seeing it.

This is an important topic and useful opportunity to look closely at what the Government has promised under the town deals, how much has been delivered and to consider whether this the right way to drive recovery from covid-19. I thank the Members who have spoken in this debate. We have heard about the importance of reasonable private rents, need for reform of business rates, shopping local and wider access to funds. The hon. Member for Leicester East (Claudia Webbe) made important points about areas that have been left behind under austerity.

Labour wants to see towns up and down the country thrive, and we are pleased for any community that has managed to receive funding from the towns fund, but we have to put this into context. There is a reason why so many towns are struggling, in desperate need of investment, regional inequality is rife in this country, and high streets are at breaking point. It goes back far beyond the covid crisis. The Government likes to talk about levelling up, but over the last 10 years they have imposed £15 billion cuts on local authorities. I hardly need to point out that outweighs the one-off £3.6 billion towns fund that will benefit a minority of English towns. The pandemic has heaped even more pressure on local councils, but the Government have broken their promise to fully compensate them for the costs of tackling covid-19, leaving a further gaping funding gap to cover and forcing many to raise council tax to cover costs, making local families pay.

The long-term decline of the UK’s high streets, with footfall down 10% since 2012, has complex reasons behind it and has left around one in 10 high street shops standing empty, even before coronavirus hit. In the past decade, 773 libraries, 750 youth centres, 1,300 children’s centres and 835 public toilets have closed down largely because of austerity. In addition, our social care system is in crisis. After several years of kicking the can down the road, the plan for reform, which the Prime Minister claimed he had already prepared, has not been forthcoming. Families, care staff and local authorities are crying out for that plan. Most recently the Government appear to have confirmed our worst fear: the Chancellor intends to proceed with the £20 cut to universal credit from September, which will push more than half a million people, including 200,000 children, into poverty. How can the Government claim they are about levelling up one day and plunge some of our least well-off citizens into difficulties the next? That is not the way to recover from covid-19.

Even if administered fairly, the towns fund would only act as a sticking plaster over these problems. However, we do not know if it has been administered fairly because, typically of this Government, the allocations process is—I am being generous here—opaque. Let us not forget that a town in the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government own constituency of Newark was selected for funding under the towns fund by the then Communities Minister, the right hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry), while the current Secretary of State selected Darwen in the former Minister’s constituency.

The allocation should have been a fair and open process but instead Ministers seem to have stitched up back-room deals that aim to funnel money into relatively wealthy areas and away from those who need it most. Ministers refused to consult directly with elected mayors with the process concerning towns in their regions, despite the Government’s own officials explicitly recommending that they do.

Investigating the allocation process for the towns fund in November 2020, the Public Accounts Committee said:

“The selection process was not impartial…The justification offered by ministers for selecting individual towns 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 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, and has risked the Civil Service’s reputation for integrity and impartiality.”

If the Government have nothing to hide, why not be transparent about the decision-making process?

For those who have been lucky enough to get some funding, it is now almost exactly two years since the towns fund was announced and the Government are still vague about what they actually hope to achieve using the fund and how they intend to measure success. Since the fund was announced, only 5% of the money committed so far—£90 million out of the promised £3.6 billion—has been paid out. Heads of terms have only been agreed with 53 of the towns, and it is unclear whether one single project has been delivered in full. In fact, there is a concern that, with so many delays, some projects may not be viable by the time the Government have finally stumped up the money.

The Government say they are aiming to deliver town deals by 2025-26. In a time of severe economic downturn following the pandemic and with support such as furlough ending and universal credit being cut, we need to support the covid recovery with a sense of urgency and boost local areas in that context. It only fuels the suspicion that the Government are more interested in stretching out the announcements when it most suits them, rather than urgently stimulating local growth and job creation.

If we want the towns fund to help with the recovery, how do we know if it is working? In a written answer earlier this week, the Minister said:

“The Department will publish a monitoring and evaluation strategy for the Towns Fund. This strategy will set out the evidenced framework and theory of change, which underpin the evaluation methodologies for the Towns Fund, a work plan, timeline and key milestones, and a bibliography.”

Two years after they announced the fund, the Government say they “will publish” their strategy, so they have still not laid out how they are going to monitor and evaluate the fund.

Any funding for our towns is better than no funding at all, and Labour supports those who have been lucky enough to get something, but what about the majority who have not? This is, after all, the same Department that has announced a levelling-up fund that again pits regions and nations against each other for crucial funding and that will hand money to wealthy areas held by Cabinet Ministers ahead of areas in greater need.

The methodology prioritised the Chancellor’s own local authority for regeneration funding ahead of more deprived areas, such as Barnsley, Flintshire, Coventry, Plymouth, Salford and the Wirral. Prioritised constituencies included those of four other members of the Cabinet. This Government cannot repair even a small part of what they have destroyed over the past 10 years using piecemeal pots of funding, let alone build back better from the covid pandemic.

Labour supports funding for every town and every region, and that has to be done transparently, fairly and with a say for local communities. Through the towns fund the Government are making promises to a minority of English towns, with many of those in need losing out. The Government need to set out a detailed account of exactly what the towns fund aims to achieve, what it will fund and, importantly, how it will measure success. Piecemeal pots of funding do not make up for a decade of cuts to local communities.

Now, more than ever, we need to give all our local areas the funding they need to recover from the covid pandemic. The real yardstick of success will be if this Government put opportunities on everyone’s doorsteps. We have seen little evidence so far that the towns fund will do that.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Damien Moore) on securing the debate and on opening it in the passionate way that he did. He talked fiercely about protecting his community, securing investment and enhancing it for the future. That really shines through to every Member in the House and, I am sure, to his constituents as well.

I thank all hon. Members for their contributions. The towns fund is a cornerstone of the Government’s levelling-up programme. It is delivering investment to towns and cities to help reshape their future, provide opportunities for regeneration and help businesses and communities thrive.

I am delighted for my hon. Friend the Member for Southport that his constituency secured a truly transformational town deal, worth £37.5 million. The town investment plan that was submitted last year constituted the largest investment into Southport from the Government in the town’s history, and I am delighted he was successful. He played a vital role in that process and worked hard in the town hall with local stakeholders, and I thank him for his support.

In 2019, we announced that 101 places had been invited to develop proposals for a town deal as part of the £3.6 billion towns fund. The 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 along our coastline. They are all different, but what they all have in common is that too many have been underinvested in and left behind as investment focused too heavily on big cities in our country.

Town deals, such as the ones in Southport and Newcastle-under-Lyme, are about reversing that trend. They are about providing investment and confidence at such a crucial time for our economic recovery, and about driving long-term regeneration, growth and productivity in communities. We are investing in new uses for often unloved spaces on high streets and in towns, creating new cultural and economic assets that will benefit communities for many years to come. We are connecting people through better infrastructure, both physical and digital, such as the new walking and cycling routes in Torquay and the creation of the new Digi-Tech factory in Norwich.

Where towns are particularly vulnerable, we have already made some investments as a rapid response to the effects of covid-19. Last year, we provided all towns with grants of up to £1 million to make improvements that can have an immediate impact on their recovery and people’s experience of their town. In Burton upon Trent, they have used that funding to make their main shopping street much more accessible to cyclists and pedestrians. In Southport, part of the funding has gone towards refurbishing the market hall to create an exciting new food and drink venue, which I understand is opening very soon; I look forward to visiting when it does.

We have seen many towns take creative approaches, such as repurposing empty shops as vibrant community and business spaces. Each town that was selected to bid for a town deal was eligible for investment of up to £25 million. Of course, that was not guaranteed, but many, such as Southport, secured more in exceptional circumstances. I am delighted to say that we have already committed over £2 billion under the towns fund. We have offered town deals to 86 places across England and will be making announcements on the final 15 towns very soon. The Chancellor announced a further 45 of them in his Budget earlier this year.

Southport is a great example of why the investment is so transformational, as it will be critical in unlocking Southport’s vision for opportunities for investment in the private sector, about which we have heard about this morning, and in allowing the town to develop through further benefit from sustainable growth in the long term. I was pleased to hear about the passion of my hon. Friend the Member for Southport for seeing projects that are funded through the town deal continue to develop.

I look forward to the outcome of the county council’s restoring your railway fund bid, which my hon. Friend talked passionately about. I understand that Southport’s plans for reinstating the Burscough Curves would give residents much better transport options, with an hourly rail service between Preston and Southport. I know how important that is to his constituents, and I know that he has been in discussions with colleagues at the Department for Transport regarding the railway links between Southport and Manchester. They are working closely with the local transport authorities on revisions to the current train timetables, to address all the concerns raised by his constituents. I know that includes particularly strong feedback around access to the southern side of Manchester from Southport and Wigan.

On 7 April, we announced the £23.6 million town deal for Truro, which will help transform Cornwall’s capital into a connected river city and support its vision of becoming a modern economic, cultural and green capital for its residents and the wider community. More recently, in June, we announced a further 33 town deals, including the others in Cornwall. They are hugely exciting projects and have the opportunity to turn around so many towns and communities that have been underinvested in. We want everybody, no matter where they grew up or were born, to have the opportunity to access the right skills and education, and to have the access to police and health services that they deserve. Direct investment will help the transformation, which is needed now more than ever.

The hon. Member for Leicester East (Claudia Webbe) talked about the town deals selection process, and there was an interesting debate—even without my help—about that point. My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell) raised some very effective rebuttal points. I can reassure the hon. Lady that the selection process was based on an evidence-based methodology that was comprehensive, robust and fair. We used a range of metrics to determine which towns would be selected for the first town deals. All towns selected were in the more deprived half of towns in the UK. Ministers made the selection due to the need for more judgment-based accountability and decision making, and we have ensured that towns traditionally left behind were secured as part of that.

I will reiterate a point that was made earlier. Despite wanting to understand the party political points made about this, we have tried to invest in towns that have been underinvested in for too long. The hon. Lady tried to cut the cake in a way that suggested it was done unfairly, but when we look at the local authorities controlled by the towns we have invested in, more than half are controlled by Labour councils. As the local government Minister, it is my job to push back on the implied assumption that parliamentary constituencies are more important than local authorities in the control of political parties. The delivery of the funds by Labour-held local authorities is really important. Only the Labour parliamentary party seems to be raising concern. The Labour local authorities are working constructively with us to deliver the investment that they are so passionate about for their communities, so I do not accept the points that the hon. Lady made.

The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith), raised a point about making sure we can continue to deliver the town funds despite the challenges that covid presents, which is a really valid point. I can certainly reassure him that we are working closely with all the towns that have been offered town deals to make sure that all of their projects can still be delivered even in this challenging time. Councils and town halls have the opportunity, if they wish and think it appropriate, to re-submit individual projects, but we have not had any applications yet. We will certainly work with them through the delivery concerns that some of them have raised. That is really important as we look to help them through the response to covid. The hon. Gentleman also raised a point about the monitoring and evaluation strategy. I can reassure him that we are looking to publish that as soon as possible, hopefully before the summer recess. I also want to reassure him that we have had that work peer reviewed to make sure it is comprehensive, robust and done in the right way.

My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) raised important points about the categorisation of the levelling-up fund. I was glad to hear the positive news in his constituency about the £24.9 million investment in Lowestoft that is being delivered. That is clearly hugely positive. I was also pleased to hear about the bounce back scheme being run by his council, which sounds extremely positive. I will be very interested to hear more about that. I will reassure him that when we look at delivering funding during this Parliament, we want to make sure that communities benefit from the many different funding streams being delivered. They all have slightly different policy objectives and goals, and therefore different assessment and eligibility criteria, which is why, for example, he secured the town deal, but I can reassure him there is the opportunity to be successful in the levelling-up fund. He clearly has that opportunity as the Member of Parliament to ensure that he helps the council prioritise the bid in Lowestoft, because that is the appropriate way to do so. We will look at that very carefully. That is why we thought it was so crucial MPs should have a role formally to suggest support for individual bids, but I will happily look at his local authority and perhaps provide him with some detail about the methodological process after this debate.

I was delighted to hear from my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme that £34 million has already been secured. I thank him for his work on that. It is exciting to hear that funding is coming through now, starting this week. He talked about the importance of making sure councils have the capacity to deliver the work, which is a crucial point. That is why, as part of the levelling-up fund process, we are providing category 1 councils with £125,000 to make sure they have the ability to do that. We are looking closely at what more can be done to support councils with capacity challenges. We absolutely recognise that that is an issue that has been raised. As I say, that capacity funding is extremely important. He made passionate points about his levelling-up fund bids. Unfortunately, I cannot comment on those today, which I am sure he will understand, but I very much look forward to seeing the outcome of the bids.

My hon. Friend the Member for Southport talked about the importance of business rates reform. He will understand the Chancellor is undergoing a comprehensive fundamental review of business rates and will report later this year, but I know his comments will have been heard.

I want to pick up on the comment made about local authority funding, and I am afraid I have to disagree on that. For the past two years we have had local government finance settlements with the support of the whole House. Not one MP objected to the finance settlements that were supported. There was a 4.6% rise in core spending power around the country. Conservative councils are raising council tax by less than Labour councils are around the country. We are trying to take steps to make sure that all councils get the support that they need. We took deliberate policy steps that were welcomed by the Labour party this year as part of that settlement, for example, by making sure that we equalise the social care grant by the tune of £390 million, redistributing money away from councils who are raising more money than they need, and making sure that councils which were not able to deliver services were still getting that support.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) talked passionately about the impact on the high street during covid. He is right, of course; we have seen this comprehensive shock delivered to the high streets and we are trying to support them as best we can. I will pick up that point—I missed the name of the Minister he suggested I speak to, but I will make sure that I take up that invitation as well. We are also delivering funding through the welcome back fund, through business rates support, through our business grants, and through all the support the Chancellor has outlined.

I am sure that all Members would agree that we need to support investment in communities and towns around the country. Southport’s ambitious town deal is just one example of the transformative investment we are making right around the country to ensure that places too often overlooked get the support they need as we emerge from this crisis. We are getting money to where it is needed the most and we are involving communities and councils every step of the way. I will just finish by echoing the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Southport—we are working to ensure that there will be optimism in places like Southport.

I thank all Members for their participation in the debate today, which shows how much they want the best for their constituents. The tone of the debate has been passionate but polite, which is always the best way to conduct affairs on such issues. I would like to go through a few points made by hon. Members.

The first is from the hon. Member for Leicester East (Claudia Webbe) who talked about the scrutiny and political imbalance in the judgment of where the town deals have been based. I, like anyone, will look at how we make decisions. I am certainly interested in the decision of my local Labour authority—which has three parliamentary constituencies, two Labour and one Conservative—to put levelling-up bids in only for the two Labour ones and to forget about the Conservative one.

My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) is absolutely right—private landlords who own so many of the buildings on our high streets and in our towns have a massive part to play in this. They have to show that they want to see the best for our towns and our communities as well. I have not forgotten about Red Rum, by the way. There is a huge mural to Red Rum overlooking the waterfront area, so every visitor is reminded of Red Rum’s history in our town.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) gives us a constant reminder of how important it is to make sure we support the whole of the United Kingdom. I am a bit envious of the fact that if I lived in his constituency I would get a pre-paid voucher to go spending on the high street. I think that I would probably spend a bit more than £100, which is the entire idea behind the scheme.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell) was absolutely right when he talked about towns being left behind for too long. We are fed up with the ripple effect that if we throw money into a city, the towns at the edge will get some of it. We need to start investing in our towns. That is exactly what our town did in Southport, and it has done what it says on the tin. It has brought and is bringing in private investment week by week into my town. Not Government money; the Government money has been the stimulus for the £350 million.

Shops are reopening again on our high streets. Big department stores reopening, for example, is a real testament to how much how much enthusiasm is around it. I would say that we have already delivered two projects, the first being the boulevard of light which was delivered months ago, and the second being the Market Hall reopening next week, so if you want a fantastic dining experience, please come to Southport. The hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) is only a train ride away still, and I would welcome him to come and see how fantastic that is. Finally, I would say that our towns do have a future, but it is our duty, our responsibility to make them stronger.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered Town Deals and covid-19 recovery.

Sitting suspended.