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Levelling Up Fund

Volume 827: debated on Tuesday 24 January 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the efficacy of the process for bidding to the Levelling Up Fund.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper and in doing so declare an interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association.

My Lords, across both rounds, the levelling-up fund has awarded £3.8 billion to 216 successful areas. This will deliver vital infrastructure projects across the UK. The competitive nature of the fund plays an important role in driving up the quality of the bids. Only the strongest bids were shortlisted. In the second round, we prioritised high-quality bids in places that had not previously received LUF investment. This has maximised the spread of the funding, recognising that lots of places are in need of investment.

My Lords, four days ago, Andy Street, the Conservative Mayor of the West Midlands, called for an end to the “broken begging bowl culture”. Can the Minister explain why the begging bowl is one of the preferred delivery arms when it comes to levelling up?

My Lords, it is not a begging bowl culture; it is that we have a finite amount of money to spend on capital projects across this country. The only fair and transparent way of finding the best bids to deliver the most for the United Kingdom has to be through a bidding process.

My Lords, some councils have spent millions on consultancy fees to make a bid for levelling-up funding. Some of those councils were unsuccessful and the consultancy firms were the winners. Does the Minister believe it is wise to get our communities to fight each other, where someone must lose?

My Lords, no, I do not, and I do not think it is necessary to employ expensive consultants to do the bidding. Local authorities know what is important in their areas and they have officers who can put forward bids. The Government will support them. It is a very clear and transparent process.

Does my noble friend accept that local authorities spend a great deal of time working out bids right across the board, instead of seeking to use that money in the way that is needed locally? Although I agree with her argument, there is widespread dissatisfaction among local authorities with the way that it works at the moment. Would it not be a good idea if the Government looked at whether there was a better way of doing it?

I agree with some of my noble friend’s views. If I remember rightly, I answered a similar question yesterday from my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham and said that the Government are committed to reducing the complexities of local government funding, as set out in the levelling up White Paper.

My Lords, in response to a question earlier, the Minister said that the assessment was made by excluding those councils that had already received funding. Were those councils told before they spent huge sums of money to make bids that they would be excluded at the first step? Secondly, how many of the Government’s 139 council priority areas have not yet received any money?

I am afraid I cannot tell the noble Baroness; I have a list here, but I could not say how many have not had any funding. What I can say is that the officials dealing with this funding will discuss process issues in particular with local authorities before they put in bids.

My Lords, the Government claim that the bidding process is fair. Can the Minister explain to the House why Knowsley, one of the most deprived boroughs in the country, received nothing, yet the Prime Minister’s area received £20 million for a park scheme?

My Lords, no, I cannot, except to say that one bid must have been better than another. I understand that unsuccessful applicants will be disappointed, but I am pleased to say that we have confirmed that there will be a third round of the fund. Further details will be set out in due course.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that a bid at this stage to improve access to our ports would be timely and should almost speak for itself in obtaining favour?

My Lords, my noble friend is probably correct in that. I would encourage any ports that need better access to make them even better, particularly if they are freeports, to look at the third round of bidding.

My Lords, given that the Minister at least expressed some interest in the possibility of some kind of reconsideration of the process in response to the question from her noble friend, might it be in her mind to do so before the third round of levelling up?

No, my Lords. Anybody who knows anything about local government funding knows that this has been looked at by many Governments over many years, but we are committed, in the levelling up White Paper, to look at the complexity of this and to try to make it a better system.

My Lords, I put on record my appreciation of the fact that the Government have helped the slate quarrying communities of north-west Wales, but can the Minister clarify whether the fact that the money allocated to that and other schemes has to be used within two years means that it has to be committed within two years or actually has to be spent? If it is the latter, there could be problems in meeting the timescale because of some of the constraints on availability and factors within the economy.

First, I say congratulations to Wales on getting the highest amount per capita out of this round. I am sorry; I will have to get an answer to that. I do not know the detail of the agreement, but I will make sure I get an answer to the noble Lord.

My Lords, the Minister did not answer one specific question. Were the no-hopers, those who had received money before, warned in advance that they had no chance and spared the effort of putting in a bid?

My Lords, I am sure that once they put in an expression of interest for the bids—because it is in two rounds—they would have been told the rules for that second round of bidding.

Can my noble friend the Minister tell us what thinking there has been in her department about local government finance in the long term? Has there been any investigation of, for example, encouraging local authorities in the longer term to raise more of their own revenue locally, rather than constantly relying on central government? We have seen centralisation over successive Governments over the years.

My Lords, with some of the devolution deals that have been done, and will be done in future, that is one of the issues we are talking to local government about and encouraging it to do.

How many rounds can there be before the next election? It is unclear to me, local government and those who watch what government does. The third round popped up after the complaints about the second round so, for transparency, should we not have a specific date for the third round to ensure there is no manipulation of the date, configured to the next general election? It is a sensible point to raise, because the allegations will be repeated each time. What is to stop a fourth found at the very last minute? Can the Minister please explain the techniques used?

My Lords, I am very sorry, but I cannot explain the techniques. All I am aware of—we have made it very clear—is that there will be a third round. It is best to note that 45% of all the awards so far have gone to opposition councils.

My Lords, on 21 December last year, the Minister told me in a Written Answer that the bid on behalf of Marple community hub was being “assessed”. Well, it failed to make the grade. Will she undertake to publish the assessments of both the failed and the successful schemes so that, as she said, a fair and transparent process can be seen by all?

My Lords, no, I cannot agree to do that because I think we would need to talk to those local authorities before we put anything like that out in the public domain. It is transparent. You can see on GOV.UK exactly how decisions are made and the processes for giving those grants.