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Ministers Criticised for Lack of Transparency over Levelling Up Fund, “Gambling” £1.7 billion

A new report from the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has accused the Government of failing to be transparent, and “gambling” £1.7 billion in funding for Levelling-Up programmes.

Levelling Up Money “Gambled”

The report focused on the £1.7 billion which was handed out in the first tranche of the £4.8 billion Levelling-Up fund, which was targeted specifically at “improv[ing] everyday life across the UK”, via projects including high street regeneration and local transport upgrades. The PAC found that, by the time ministers had decided on the principles and criteria for awarding the fund, they had already decided which of the 170 shortlisted bidders would be successful as a result of these principles.

Moreover, the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) also failed to list unsuccessful bidders, meaning that there was “no transparency over the location and type of unsuccessful versus successful bids.”

Chair of the Committee Dame Meg Hiller said that “without clear parameters, plans or measures of success it’s hard to avoid the appearance that government is just gambling taxpayers money on policies and programmes that are little more than a slogan, retrofitting the criteria for success and not even bothering to evaluate if it worked… the government must learn again to account to taxpayers for its use of their money.”

Meg Hiller criticised Levelling Up Fund allocation
Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, Dame Meg Hiller

Responding to the findings of the report, DLUHC said: “The assessment process was transparent, robust and fair, and the criteria included the need for projects to be deliverable and to fuel regeneration and growth to level up areas most in need.”

However, the committee remained concerned over the timing of Ministerial input and that more realistic and feasible bids for funding have missed out at the expense of projects claiming to be “shovel-ready”, but that were subsequently delayed heavily.

Responding to the report, Cllr Kevin Bentley, chairman of the Local Government Association’s People and Places Board, commented: “Turning Levelling Up from a political slogan to a reality will only be achieved if councils have the powers and funding they need to address regional inequality…

“Timely, sustainable funding for levelling up, including the full rollout of UKSPF allocations, alongside clear and measurable targets as specified in this report would go a long way to achieving local solutions to the national challenges we face and ensure all parts of the country are able to prosper in future.”

Final Thought

If the Levelling Up Agenda is to proceed with no real parameters, plans or criteria for success, then it is clearly doomed to fail. This would, as the PAC has noted, amount to little more than gambling with the public purse. Further to this, a lack of transparency regarding successful and unsuccessful bids will not encourage local authorities to apply for funding.

You could also be forgiven for recalling to last year when Ministers were accused of directing Levelling Up funding to Conservative-held areas, despite their relative affluence. This followed the PAC’s reporting in 2020 that the selection process for the ‘Towns Fund’ “had not been impartial”, raising concerns about the lack of transparency over the towns selected.

If Levelling Up is to succeed, these perceptions around transparency and Ministerial tampering must come to an end. They raise real and pressing concerns about the commitment of the Government to the principles of the Levelling Up agenda, and whether this is little more than an exercise in allocating infrastructure funding in ways that are electorally expedient.

As the Government wishes to shift attention away from recent headlines and to, as it says “get on with the job”, then focusing on the deliverables and metrics of the Levelling Up agenda would be a very good place to start. This will be a key focus of the Levelling Up Commission, chaired by Sir Robert Buckland QC MP, which will be holding it’s first inquiry session on 5th July.

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