Constituencies with Tory MPs have received significantly more levelling-up funding than other similarly deprived areas, an exclusive New Statesman analysis can reveal.
Three of the government’s flagship levelling-up funds appear to be affected by this trend, with many relatively well-off Conservative-held seats receiving more funding per person than far more deprived Labour areas.
The analysis also revealed that seats gained by the Conservative Party in the last election have benefited even further from levelling-up money, when compared with similarly deprived areas.
The New Statesman analysed disbursements from 11 different pots of money linked to the government’s levelling-up agenda. The analysis found that Conservative seats received significantly more per capita funding from Town Deals, the Getting Building Fund and the Community Renewal Fund than other seats with similar levels of deprivation.
Non-Conservative seats received slightly more funding per person (£0.11) from Multiply, which targets adult numeracy skills, when accounting for adult skills deprivation.
In total, the figures suggest that each resident of a Conservative constituency has received £64 more from those four funds than they would have done if they had had an MP from a different party. Those living in seats won by the Conservatives in 2019 or in subsequent by-elections have received an even higher premium, totalling £88 each.
Source: New Statesman analysis of UK government data
The allocations most heavily associated with an area’s political control were those from Town Deals. The fund was established to provide grants of up to £25m to aid economic regeneration, generate investment and build vital infrastructure. The New Statesman’s analysis found that after controlling for income and employment deprivation, town residents with Tory MPs received an average of £57.44 more per person than those with non-Tory MPs.
The impartiality of allocations under the Towns Fund has long been called into question. In 2021, an academic study found that Conservative ultra-marginal seats were 45 per cent more likely to be allocated funding than other seats, calling it an example of pork barrel politics – where public money is used to gain electoral advantage.
People living in Tory seats were also found to have received £1.55 more from the Community Renewal Fund, compared with those living in similarly deprived non-Tory seats. Controlling for income, employment and skills deprivation, people with Conservative MPs received £5.32 more from the Getting Building Fund.
The analysis also found that the per capita sum awarded from the flagship Levelling Up Fund was £21.32 higher in seats gained by the Conservatives in the 2019 election or subsequent by-elections, compared with other similarly deprived seats. Town Deals and the Getting Building Fund also saw an advantage for Tory gains.
Source: New Statesman analysis of UK government data
Last week, a report by parliament’s Public Accounts Committee raised concerns over the risk of political influence in allocating grants from the Levelling Up Fund. The report noted that the awarding criteria for the fund was finalised only after ministers knew what the shortlisted candidates were and how different criteria would advantage them.
The committee had previously criticised the government for similar arrangements in awarding grants from the Towns Fund.
The findings call into question the criteria the government has used to allocate funding as part of its levelling-up agenda. The New Statesman’s analysis used relevant metrics from the widely used indices of multiple deprivation (IMD) to assess need. The government – rather than use its own gold-standard IMD – has instead created bespoke formulas to allocate each pot of money that take into account other factors, or has sometimes made places compete for money rather than allocating it to the most deprived areas.
That choice has had major implications for funding allocations. In January, an analysis by the Centre for Inequality and Levelling Up found that the government’s formula classified only 59 of the 100 most deprived areas in England as being in the highest-priority bracket.
As a result, only 39 per cent of those 100 areas received grants from the Levelling Up Fund, including just five of the ten most-deprived areas. Blackpool, by many measures the most deprived area in the UK, received no allocations at all.
“Defining deprivation is to an extent subjective,” Professor Graeme Atherton, who co-authored the Centre for Inequality and Levelling Up report, told the New Statesman. “But if the government wants to have a debate regarding how deprivation is defined and to build new ways of understanding it, which then dictate the distribution of funding, it should be done openly with contributions from different stakeholders – not, as in this case, behind closed doors.”
A spokesperson from the Department for Levelling Up said: “We are delivering vital investment to communities across the UK that have for too long been overlooked and undervalued.
“The selection process for our funds has been transparent, robust and fair, and we have made sure the funding will be used to fuel regeneration and growth to level up areas most in need.”
Not all funding allocations were found to be associated with partisan control. Having a Conservative MP had no statistically significant effect on the allocations of seven of the 11 funds examined by the New Statesman. This included the flagship Levelling Up Fund, the Shared Prosperity Fund, the Transforming Cities Fund and the Community Ownership Fund.
When looking at recent Tory gains, four of the funds showed a significant favourable distribution of money towards new Conservative seats, with seven having no statistically significant difference.
There is no official list of funds that are part of the government’s levelling-up agenda, so the New Statesman selected funds that were place-based, that aimed to tackle geographic inequalities, were allocated after the 2019 general election, were mentioned in the government’s levelling-up white paper, and had published their allocations.
The 11 funds analysed were the Levelling Up Fund, Getting Building Fund, Shared Prosperity Fund, Multiply, Brownfield, Community Ownership Fund, Community Renewal Fund, Towns Fund, Transforming Cities Fund, Zero Emission Bus Regional Areas Scheme and the Strength in Places Fund.
Money in these funds had been granted to a wide array of different types of geographic area – some were allocated to metro areas, local authorities or even entire regions, while others were allocated to individual neighbourhoods, streets or buildings.
In order to be able to analyse the data at the level of parliamentary constituencies, funding for smaller areas was added up to the constituency level while funding for larger areas was divided up, proportional to population share.
This method allows for consistent analysis across funds and to examine the relative funding of Conservative and non-Conservative constituencies. The limitation is that this method assumes funding to be allocated on an equal per capita basis, which is unlikely to be the case for larger areas.
The New Statesman then performed a regression analysis to see the effect of having a Conservative MP on per capita funding. Two factors affecting allocations needed to be controlled for, however: eligibility and need.
Eligibility was accounted for by restricting the analysis of each fund to areas eligible to receive funding. Certain funds were only available to English areas, for instance, while others targeted only towns or cities.
Need was measured with the widely used IMD. For funds with the broadest aims, such as the Levelling Up Fund, overall deprivation was used. For those with more specific aims, such as improving local infrastructure, jobs or skills, more detailed measures from within the IMD were used (such as adult skills, employment deprivation or geographic barriers to accessing services). When multiple sub-measures were combined, they were weighted according to IMD methodology.
[See also: Why Britain is once again the sick man of Europe]