Levelling up will fail unless towns get major infrastructure powers, report warns Michael Gove

Boris Johnson and Michael Gove have been warned that the Government will fail in its levelling up goals unless it empowers town leaders to deliver infrastructure schemes rather than having to fight each other for funding.

Michael Gove, who now has responsibility for the Government's levelling up agenda, has been urged to grant more powers to local councils.

A new report by the UK’s official infrastructure advisers has urged ministers to overhaul the current funding system to give local councils five-year devolved infrastructure budgets rather having to “burn up staff time” pulling together funding bids for ring-fenced amounts of Government money to make improvements to roads, public transport, broadband provision and other areas.

The National Infrastructure Commission is recommending councils are allocated funding on the basis of the size of their population and transport network, in line with the funding arrangements for mayoral combined authorities.

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In what will read as a message for the Prime Minister’s newly-appointed “levelling-up” tsar Michael Gove, the NIC report warns: “Failure to empower local authorities to deliver local infrastructure will lead the Government to fail in its levelling up goals.”

In its Infrastructure, Towns and Regeneration report being unveiled in Grimsby today, the commission recommends that the current array of around 15 funding streams for local transport are streamlined into just two.

In addition to the five-year budgets, a targeted scheme to help areas with poor transport connections or where new industries could spring up would be established.

The commission’s analysis suggests that around £6 billion per year should be made available for local transport investment in England outside London in the next five years.

This would mean around a 40 per cent increase in investment compared to 2019/20 which the NIC predicts would be enough for local authorities in every area of the country to address priority infrastructure projects in their area.

The NIC proposals have been backed by West Yorkshire mayor Tracy Brabin.

“Earlier this year I met with Sir John Armitt, chair of the NIC, to discuss the issues facing our communities here in West Yorkshire and I fully support the findings in this report,” she said.

“If the Government really does want to deliver on its commitment to levelling up then local councils and combined authorities need long-term, devolved funding for infrastructure to encourage collaboration and partnership rather than the myriad of different streams which often see neighbouring areas bidding against other.

“Investing in long-term infrastructure radically improves peoples’ daily lives. We have all seen the result of decades of underinvestment in our region’s transport and that is why have asked the Government for £920 million for our City Region Sustainable Transport Settlement and why we need the Eastern leg of HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail.

“I’d urge the Government to support these recommendations to allow areas like West Yorkshire to build on our progress under devolution and make levelling up a reality rather than just empty promises.”

West Yorkshire is expected to find out next month whether it will receive the £920m requested, which would fund a mass transit system linking West Yorkshire’s towns, cities and suburbs.

But a recent meeting of the Combined Authority’s Transport Committee heard the area may receive less than £600m depending on the Government’s decision on its bid.

The Government has created a £4.2 billion pot of cash to fund sustainable transport schemes that will be spread between eight “city regions” in the UK - with West Yorkshire and South Yorkshire among them. Last week, South Yorkshire mayor Dan Jarvis told Parliament his combined authority was bidding for £660m from the fund.

As part of wider infrastructure improvements, the NIC also recommended that ministers offer subsidies to ensure the Prime Minister delivers on his pledge to roll out gigabit broadband to the hardest-to-reach premises.

Commissioner Bridget Rosewell said: “Levelling up cannot be done from Whitehall. Every English town faces a different set of challenges and opportunities and local leaders are best placed to develop strategies to address these.

“Competing against other councils for multiple pots of cash creates a focus on the short term, continual uncertainty, and burns up staff time.

“Local councils need to be empowered to deliver transformational plans for the future and held accountable for doing so.”

Councillor David Renard, economy spokesperson for the Local Government Association, said: “Reducing and simplifying the number of funding streams available to councils and providing long-term certainty will help councils plan and deliver better transport and connectivity across the country.”

The findings come after the Government asked the commission in March to review how infrastructure investment can best support the needs of different town-sized settlements.

White Paper 'will include bold policies'

Responding to the NIC's recommendations, the Government has promised its forthcoming Levelling Up White Paper will include 'bold new policy interventions'.

A Government spokesperson said: “Levelling up is about spreading opportunity, boosting living standards and improving public services, which is why we’re investing a record £100bn in infrastructure projects this year as we build back better from the pandemic.

“We have also made significant progress devolving power and money away from Whitehall to local leaders, including through providing long-term transport budgets for city regions worth £4.2 billion.

“We will publish a Levelling Up White Paper later this year, setting out bold new policy interventions to help improve livelihoods, spread opportunity and drive economic growth.”

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