Levelling up and moving on: the challenge for the Prime Minister

Credit: PA Images

Is Levelling Up "little more than a slogan?"

It's the flagship pledge of this Government, the big promise to unlock potential across the country and address long-term inequalities such as the North/South divide.

But today a group of cross-party MPs have accused ministers of squandering taxpayers money on ill-thought out levelling up plans.

The critical report is by the Public Accounts Committee, which examines the value for money of Government projects, and has both Labour and Conservative members sitting alongside the Liberal Democrats and the SNP.

It described the way in which the Department for Levelling Up has been allocating large sums of money as "unsatisfactory".

Here's why:

What is the Levelling Up funding row about?

The fund is being awarded to projects aiming to "improve everyday life across the UK", including by "regenerating town centres and high streets, upgrading local transport, and investing in cultural and heritage assets", according to the Government.

A number of areas in the North West put in successful bids for the first round of funding allocations totalling more than £230 million. They include:

  • £15.9m for town centre regeneration in Barrow-in-Furness

  • £20m for Bury Market

  • £19.9m to expand the University of Central Lancashire

  • £10m for the Tate Liverpool and £10m for National Museums Liverpool.

  • £37.5m for transport infrastructure improvements in the Liverpool City Region

But other North West areas missed out - leaving some raising concerns about fairness and politically motivated allocation.

They included Knowsley - one of the most deprived areas in England.

'There is no more money to throw away like this': The findings of the PAC report

The Public Accounts Committee's report found that Ministers only finalised the principles for awarding the first round of funding once they had already decided which of the 170 shortlisted bidders would be successful.

The MPs sitting on the Committee also found that realistic bids to the Levelling Up Fund have missed out at the expense of projects claiming to be ‘shovel-ready’ that have “since been beset with delays”.

Dame Meg Hillier is a Labour MP and chairs the Public Accounts Committee. Credit: PA

Dame Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said: “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."

She added "The nation is being squeezed harder than it has for decades, there is no more to throw away like this."

The Liverpool City Region was among areas successful in the first round of funding.

In response, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities said its assessment process was “transparent, robust and fair”.

A spokesperson for the department said: “The first round of the Levelling Up Fund is delivering vital investment to communities across the UK that have for too long been overlooked and undervalued.

“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.

“Further rounds of the Levelling Up Fund will continue this work, with unsuccessful bidders given feedback and able to apply again.”

'Moving On': the challenge for the Prime Minister

Boris Johnson's first speech as Prime Minister included promises of "Levelling Up".

Levelling Up has always been high stakes stuff - a key promise of the manifesto that saw Boris Johnson sweep into Number 10 with the biggest majority the Conservatives had seen in 40 years.

But now, getting it right is more important than ever - politically as well as practically.

While the majority of Conservative MPs backed their boss when he faced a confidence vote in his leadership, they will expect a return on their loyalty.

Red wall MPs we've spoken to say there is still genuine hurt and anger that will need to be addressed, and the best way to do that is by delivering on the big promises to places like the North West.

Here's James Daly, who represents Bury North:

So can Levelling Up lift the Prime Minister out of his current precarious position?

In theory his Government should have time to deliver on those promises - according to parliamentary process he can't face another no confidence vote for at least another year.

But with rumours that a rule change could be all but "inevitable" - they might feel the need to move fast.

Get it right, and the Prime Minister could feel his standing among his own party and the public levelled up too.