At the beginning of March this year, as part of his Budget speech, Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced the Levelling Up Fund and invited applications from local authorities across the UK. The £4.8bn initiative was the latest in a line of government programmes to promote regional development and counter the economic supremacy of London and the south-east.
The fund, making good on the government’s 2019 election promises, would “support town centre and high-street regeneration, local transport projects, and cultural and heritage assets”. This wouldn’t be a “levelling down”, a race to the bottom; instead, it would bring investment in infrastructure and jobs across the country.
It was a laudable aim, no doubt, and one that made inroads into the opposition’s traditional comfort territory. The proposal solidified the image of a new Conservative Party basing policy on pro-Brexit patriotism and showing common cause with the “left behind”.
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But once the government’s priority list for the most likely and eligible recipients of the fund’s cash was published, the laudable aims of countering geographic inequalities were muddied by accusations of “pork barrel politics”. Sunak’s leafy constituency of Richmond in West Yorkshire was designated in the first-priority category, as was the affluent market town of Newark, the seat of Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick. Research by the Financial Times showed that, despite being in the lower half of national deprivation rankings, 11 English areas represented by Conservative MPs were listed as “priority 1” for levelling-up funding.
The formula for achieving this classification remained opaque for a full three weeks, until it was released at the end of March. In this time, some speculated that civil servants would be desperately struggling to retrofit a ranking methodology, until it was revealed that the fund would be allocated partly on the basis of metrics such as “average journey times to employment centres”.
This system privileges more dispersed rural areas, while the accepted, widely used standard for measuring social need – the government’s own Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD), based on income, employment, education, health and crime rates – was abandoned.
Under this measure, some of the most deprived areas in the country were only listed as having second-priority status for levelling up. Barnsley, ranked 38th most deprived out of 317 local authorities, and Tower Hamlets, ranked 27th, were both placed in the second category. By comparison, Sunak’s Richmondshire is listed as the 251st in the IMD and Jenrick’s Newark and Sherwood 148th.
The debacle of the Levelling Up Fund is indicative of a wider feature of the government: a tendency to paper over the cracks of serious social problems with inadequate, centrally controlled funds to be fought for by cash-starved councils in competition with each other. Whether the iniquitous rankings of this particular fund are deliberate, or the result of an unhappy coincidence, any scheme that aims to address regional imbalances while prioritising Richmond over Barnsley is doomed to fail.
This article originally appeared in the Spotlight supplement on regional development. You can download the full edition here.