First, the good news. Putting aside the politics of the announcement, the Stronger Towns Fund is a welcome recognition that our towns have been left out of government policy for too long. Labour recognised this in a series of town-focused announcements during conference season. The fact that the government now appear to be doing so is a small, albeit important moment for our towns. Each of the two major parties in Westminster, and the SNP, are now paying close attention to how their policies impact upon towns and their important part in our national story. That hasn’t always been the case; a city-driven model of economic growth has dominated Westminster for three decades. A change in approach is welcome and should be good news for people in our towns.
Now, the bad news. First of all, the amount of money involved is small; there’s no getting away from this. Don’t get me wrong – £1.6billion is a lot of money. However, as James Brokenshire confirmed in his statement last night, it would be over seven years. That equates to around £220million per year for all towns in England. Except the allocation is actually £1billion; towns will need to bid for the remaining £600million in a competitive process, details of which will emerge soon. The table below shows the regional allocation of this £1billion with the per year breakdown.
Of the £1billion allocated, a region like the South West, the single biggest recipient of EU Structural Funds, will receive just £33million over seven years. So it is little surprise that South West MPs from all parties took turns to slam the Stronger Towns Fund on Monday. The minister explained that the allocation has been based on need; using relative productivity, income and skills levels to do so. It would be nice to know how these measures have been calculated, because if the need has been based on regional data it risks smoothing out very important local differences in productivity, income and skills levels.
One could, for instance, identify ‘the North West’ as having low productivity. But what does that tell us about the differences in productivity between, say, the city of Manchester and Rochdale or smaller towns like Bacup or Darwen? We know Manchester’s productivity out-strips its surrounding local authorities (which are not towns), but across the North West productivity ‘evens itself out’. In the South West, Bristol may be very productive but what about the hundreds of small towns across the region? If we want to allocate resource, we need better data on town productivity. If, as seems likely, the minister is allocating hundreds of millions of pounds on the basis of imprecise data, don’t we risk it being poorly allocated and wasted?
Which brings me to the next criticism of the announcement. Our combined authorities (city-regions) and Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) have been tasked with taking the lead roles in delivering this funding. I sense the dead hand of Treasury oversight; the obsessive need for Whitehall to retain mastery over the process from an office in Westminster. Not only that, but the bodies tasked with providing leadership here are, largely, wedded to a city-centric model of economic growth. I fully understand the need for the Treasury to exert some control. However, tasking combined authorities and LEPs to do so risks the money disappearing down a black hole and ended up as a line on a balance sheet seven years from now.
Instead, I would urge the government to relinquish power to people in towns to deliver for themselves. To allow them to really ‘take back control’.
Try some pilot areas. Look at the excellent work being carried out by organisations like the Local Trust, who empower and fund people in towns to deliver sometimes small, sometimes large, projects themselves. By giving the lead role to combined authorities and LEPs this Fund places a barrier between people in communities and the welcome aims it hopes to achieve.
When I speak to people in towns, as I have for many years now, they would agree very much with the Prime Minister when she says that their towns have “a glorious heritage, huge potential and, with the right help, a bright future”. However, they would also express frustration that they have little agency or control over that future. Resources are allocated somewhere else. Decisions are reached around desks many miles away; decisions they have had no say about, and about which they know very little.
The announcement of the Stronger Towns Fund is this government’s opportunity to begin to put that right. The money is only part of the solution. The distribution of power is equally important.
At the Centre For Towns, we are clear that the solutions to the challenges our towns face lie in the people in those towns and not around desks in Westminster. Empower them, hand over the money, and trust them to deliver. Make good on a key Brexit promise; for people and communities to ‘take back control’.
The Fund is a welcome announcement – but there is much more to do.
Ian Warren is co-founder of the Centre for Towns