Rother Valley MP Alexander Stafford said he was not surprised that Rishi Sunak’s Budget earlier this month was pinned as a Budget for the North, and he had been expecting a raft of investment in the region.
But he welcomed the “hugely significant” first opportunity for the Government to deliver on promises which have been questioned in light of coronavirus spending, as he had been assured the pandemic had only intensified ministers’ determination to “double down on levelling up”.
“We’ve now got some sort of proof,” Mr Stafford said. “Now, this is happening, there's more money in the pot, and they are going to care about the northern areas.”
And he added: “There's a lot more money, a lot more investment, to come.”
Contrasting the Chancellor’s Budget with those seen in the past, Mr Stafford said it represented a “sea change”, and he said: “And there’s going to be more of it.”
And he referenced “ruffled feathers” of some Conservative colleagues in the South who questioned why funds were being concentrated on the Blue Wall.
“Look at the Towns Fund,” he said, referencing to a pot of money into which towns can bid for up to £25m to improve their area.
The first 45 towns had the amount they would be receiving confirmed at the Budget but many more are still to be announced, and Mr Stafford said: “The top 101 towns that are going to be able to bid for it, if you look at the list, so many of them were from the North anyway,”
Turning to the Levelling Up Fund, another scheme announced by the Chancellor, Mr Stafford said there were quick turnaround times on it, and the Chancellor has already said he wants projects under this programme to be delivered before the next election.
“They want things to get going,” he said, while in the past initiatives would take “a long time and no real tangible benefit” was delivered.
He added: “I think this Government clearly is in a hurry to fulfill the manifesto pledge of Levelling Up the North and doing the best they can.”
Mr Stafford, who became the first non-Labour in Rother Valley’s 101-year history in 2019, said he had asked Mr Sunak in the summer whether the agenda would be stymied due to the colossal funds needed to tackle the coronavirus.
And he was told “no, this is exactly the reason we need to double down on levelling up, because a lot of northern areas have been hit hardest by the pandemic”.
And it built on this idea that the pandemic and levelling up had almost become intertwined, in the Government’s Build Back Better messaging.
He said: “I am confident that this Government is obsessed with levelling up the North and actually making a difference, we hear this on our phone calls, in our meetings, there’s so much emphasis on this
Mr Stafford said it made sense that more Tory areas had been awarded funding simply because there were more Tory MPs, but he said he was disappointed that South Yorkshire’s bid had not been approved to build a freeport, and he highlighted that his own constituency had not been successful in the Towns Fund bidding this time around.
But he said that in those areas which had been successful such as the East Midlands and the Humber, politicians from all sides of the divide had come together.
“We frankly have lessons to learn, and that is when you all need to work together, Labour and Conservative, whether that’s local authorities or wherever people work together to actually get the best for that area.
“What I think is very interesting perspective is if you look at the Levelling Up Fund prospectus, yes it’s the local authority who puts in the bid for it and is leading it, but more weight is given to it if the local MP is on board as well, so actually it’s almost forcing MPs and local authorities to work together.”
He hoped that would mean more MPs and councils “putting party politics aside” in these bids.