Andrew Gwynne MP: Tory ‘levelling up’ plans look a lot like cronyism

We need proper scrutiny of the government's pork-barrel politics.

£10 notes pegged to a washing line

Andrew Gwynne is Labour MP for Denton and Reddish.

Last week’s Queen’s Speech saw a barrage of promises and snappy slogans from the government. They promised to make the country ‘stronger, healthier and more prosperous than ever before’, and vowed to ‘level up opportunities across all parts of the United Kingdom.’

Levelling up has become a kind of mantra for the Tories, and on the surface, it isn’t hard to see why. Who wouldn’t want their government to focus on local and regional investment, and breathe new life into communities that have been forgotten for far too long?

Scratch the surface of the government’s levelling up agenda, though, and you find very little substance and a concerning amount of old-fashioned Tory cronyism.

Pork barrel politics

Take, for example, the ‘Towns Fund’ – a flashy £3.6 Billion investment scheme to ‘unleash the full economic potential of over 100 places and level up communities in our towns and rural areas’.

Robert Jenrick, the communities secretary, announced that deprived areas in the UK would be awarded £25 million each. Yet Mr Jenrick and Jake Berry chose 61 of the 101 towns considered for the fund. Of those 61 towns chosen, 60 were in Conservative held seats, marginals, or Tory targets. Mr Jenrick’s own seat of Newark was also selected and ended up receiving funding of £25m.  

This was an infuriatingly familiar scandal. Time and time the government promises to recognise struggling regions and communities, and yet it can’t seem to help pursuing its own interests or giving goodies to its mates.

In my own constituency of Denton and Reddish, I saw first-hand the farce that the Towns Fund had become. I watched as nearby Tory held (with a slim majority of 2,336) Cheadle was awarded £13.9 million pounds. Meanwhile, Denton and Reddish was ignored.

Cheadle has a relative child poverty rate of 10%, Denton and Reddish has a rate of almost double that at 19.7%. Denton and Reddish has a higher rate of unemployment claimants and lower average earnings. Denton and Reddish also has a lower rate of educational attainment and students are more likely to attend a school that is rated inadequate by Ofsted.

I could go on and on, but to cut a long story short – by any metric the decision makes no sense.

Off the rails

Now this is not to say that areas like Cheadle don’t deserve any financial assistance. Like the rest of the northern constituencies it has been hard hit by Covid-19. But the government’s funding decisions reflect a lack of common sense in dealing out financial support.

In my seat, Reddish South has one of the quietest train stations in the UK, and only has one return journey each week. It isn’t fit for regular passenger use and unnecessarily isolates local residents.

I have submitted two formal bids to the Restoring Your Railway fund, and both have failed. I am currently awaiting a response to my third bid and am crossing everything that the government has a change of heart. But the fact is I shouldn’t have to beg the government to provide financial assistance to communities that it claims to represent.

Local listening

To effectively level up, the government needs to move away from pork-barrel politics to a far more considered and detailed agenda. This needs to include a levelling up fund with transparent and independent metrics, so that we can see how and why money is being given to particular communities.

We need to see imaginative and unprecedented investment (eight free ports won’t cut it I’m afraid). And most importantly the government needs to listen to representatives from local government to make the most of taxpayer cash.

In principle, I absolutely support the idea of levelling up. It’s just that I haven’t seen much of it. Instead, the government has courted support in traditional Labour voting areas by promising to reverse the damage done by consecutive Conservative governments. It would be unforgiveable if it was to renege on this promise.

A government white paper on levelling up is expected in the next month or so. After almost two long years of hearing this slogan bandied around with very little substance, I’m looking forward to scrutinising this paper and seeing if the government can transform a slogan into a reality.

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