The Levelling Up agenda is suffering an identity crisis as the latest round of funding shows - Sir Stephen Houghton

Last week began with news reports that No.10 were asking their MPs to ditch “levelling up” as a phrase, with “stepping up” or “gauging up” offered as alternatives. Whatever name they chose to call it doesn’t matter, but allocations of round two of the Levelling Up Fund appear to show that the agenda really is suffering an identity crisis.

The money announced will do good things – but will it level up the places that need it the most? Is it about piecemeal economic interventions, or rebalancing regional inequalities?

Round two itself was larger than the first round which was a welcome reflection of inflationary pressure these projects face. However, the allocations have not been well targeted to where the need is. Our region is a prime example of this. Yorkshire and the Humber has received less per person than every other region in the country apart from London.

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Indeed, despite the overall fund being about £500m larger than round one, our region has actually got less - £66m less. In the first round Yorkshire and the Humber received 11 per cent. Our share in the second round was just 5.8 per cent - the biggest fall of any region.

The Prime Minister’s own constituency was awarded £19m in the latest funding round. PIC: Anthony Devlin/Getty ImagesThe Prime Minister’s own constituency was awarded £19m in the latest funding round. PIC: Anthony Devlin/Getty Images
The Prime Minister’s own constituency was awarded £19m in the latest funding round. PIC: Anthony Devlin/Getty Images

There will be many Town Halls ecstatic to get the news that their bids have been successful. My own authority Barnsley was successful after having received nothing in round one. However, over 400 bids were unsuccessful – think of the time, effort and cost wasted. With ministers making the final decision, there are increasing suspicions about political influence trumping need.

The decision to award £19m to the Prime Minister’s own constituency is creating headlines. This amount is coincidentally very similar to our rejected bid for former mining communities of Barnsley East. What formula puts the needs of the nation’s wealthiest above the needs of some of the poorest?

Context about the last decade is key here. These winning projects will do good things for their local areas, but the better way to “level up” would just be to fund local government properly.

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If the governments since 2010 had maintained local government spending with inflation, then as a sector we would be spending £14.5bn more each year. Sometimes huge numbers like this can seem abstract. To help put that number into perspective, that is more than eight times as much as the whole of England got in round two of the Levelling Up Fund.

And this is the amount councils have been cut by each year. When you consider that we are now 13 years into austerity, then the numbers become astronomical and make this recent funding pale into comparison.

In Barnsley we have lost £120m a year due to government cutbacks. Over 10 years that’s £1.2bn lost to Barnsley alone. Our recent award of £10m, while very welcome, can’t undo that damage to services and to the vast spend in the economy.

Levelling up starts with good public services. That's what levels up the people and places in most need. It grows into education and skills to enable people to be the best they can be.

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It blossoms into economic and business growth, so we can give those people good employment opportunities and quality lives.

It takes decades. I know because that’s what we have been doing in Barnsley for the last 20 years. Levelling up is about place-based regeneration and renewal.

To those places who have been successful I say well done and good luck. I am not into the politics of envy.

But I am into the politics of social justice and equality of opportunity. The areas of deprivation that have been left out are not getting that. As a nation we must do right by them as well. If levelling up is about anything it has to be about that.

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The government has announced that there will be a third round of levelling up funding. This is their opportunity to get things right.

Firstly, let’s get rid of the “begging bowl” culture as the Conservative Mayor of the West Midlands put it. It pits communities against each other and creates animosity when one region or area triumphs over another.

Second, let’s make sure we properly target the areas that need it most.

Yes, there are clearly pockets of deprivation all over the country and big inequalities within regions. But the economic indicators clearly show that many areas are hugely underperforming economically, which is bad for these communities and bad for the country as a whole.

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Instead, why not have a transparent allocation formula that distributes funds fairly to each area depending on their level of deprivation and how much support they need to catch-up with the national economic performance. Finally, what I hope to see from this, and future, governments is an understanding of the scale of investment needed to begin to close these regional inequalities.

Cllr Sir Stephen Houghton is chair of the Special Interest Group of Municipal Authorities (SIGOMA) and leader of Barnsley Council.