Legal challenge to £4.8bn Levelling Up Fund highlights Rishi Sunak's Richmondshire being chosen over Barnsley

A legal challenge against the Government's £4.8bn Levelling Up Fund has highlighted the controversial decision to prioritise Rishi Sunak's Richmond constituency over the town of Barnsley for support.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak pictured in North Yorkshire in June 2020. Picture: James Hardisty

A judge has granted the Good Law Project a two-day hearing into whether there should be a judicial review of the way money has been allocated for the scheme. The project's lawyers argue money has unlawfully been directed towards Conservative constituencies.

Legal documents submitted in support of the Project's case and seen by The Yorkshire Post cite Richmondshire being given a higher priority for funding than Barnsley.

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The Good Law Project’s statement of facts and grounds challenges the way in which different local authority areas have been prioritised for support.

It was announced in March that all council areas were being split into three categories for support with those in Category 1 given an initial £125,000 to develop higher-quality bids for Levelling Up Funding and also told their schemes would be prioritised for support over those areas in Category 2 and 3.

The Good Law Project is challenging the lawfulness of the allocation decisions and the methodology used to make them.

One of the grounds put forward is that some of the most deprived areas in the country - including Barnsley - were not included in Category 1. In 2019, Barnsley was ranked as the 38th most deprived area in England.

The Good Law Project’s statement said that following Mr Sunak’s announcement of the different category areas which had put Richmondshire, the area he represents, in Category 1 while Barnsley was in Category 2, the Chancellor was asked whether the fund was an example of “naked pork barrel politics”.

He replied: “The formula for the grant payments for the new fund, to give them some capacity funding to bid for new projects, is based on an index of economic need, which is transparently published by MHCLG and based on a bunch of objective measures.

“No area is excluded from bidding, it’s just that those areas, on the basis of this formula, might need a bit of extra help, so we’re giving those local areas some money to put their bid together, to help them.”

The Good Law Project said this statement was “inaccurate in at least two material respects” - firstly that the index of economic need was not transparently published and secondly that Category 1 status also includes priority for winning projects in addition to extra money for making bids.

The Government subsequently said the methodology for the categorisations was based in part on areas that had the highest level of need to support transport connectivity.

It took account of the average journey time to centres of employment in the calculation.

Other metrics included an area’s need for regeneration, as well as economic recovery and growth.

It is intended that money from the scheme will be used to help regenerate town centres and high streets, upgrade local transport, and invest in cultural and heritage assets.

Mr Justice Bourne has now granted the Good Law Project’s application for permission to apply for a judicial review.

He said: “The grounds are arguable, subject to the observation that the existence of a free-standing principle of a duty of transparency (or good administration) upon which a judicial review challenge can be founded is at best debatable.

“However, it is appropriate for the issues about transparency to be explored at the substantive hearing along with the other grounds.”

Should any judicial review ultimately find in favour of the Good Law Project, the Government may be compelled to redo the formula before making allocation decisions.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, which is administering the fund, said: “It would not be appropriate to comment on ongoing legal action.

“The £4.8 billion Levelling Up Fund is open to all places in Great Britain and will play a vital role in helping to support and regenerate communities. The published methodology makes clear the metrics used to identify places judged to be most in need.”

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