Why the £4.8bn Levelling Up Fund's focus on car journeys favours areas like rural Richmondshire over Barnsley and Sheffield

The Government's flagship £4.8bn Levelling Up Fund will be biased towards rural areas in favour of deprived urban areas because of the importance of car journeys in deciding who gets priority for investment, it is claimed.

A document setting out the methodology for the fund, released on Thursday night, reveals that average journey times to work by car was the biggest single factor in determining the priority areas to get up to £20m in funding.

It represents 18.75 per cent of the weighting for choosing which areas are preferred for investment, while productivity, unemployment rates and skills only represent 16.7 per cent each. Deprivation and low incomes are not used as part of the decision-making process.

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Pictured Buttertubs Pass between Hawes and Swaledale, one of the famous photographed landmarks of the Yorkshire Grand Depart, Tour de France. Pic: James Hardisty

This means that while Chancellor Rishi Sunak's North Yorkshire constituency of Richmondshire is in the top bracket, more deprived areas like Barnsley and Sheffield where public transport is more widely used are in a lower priority category.

Bids from places in category one will be preferred when the Government is considering where to allocate funding, and these areas will be eligible to receive targeted capacity funding "to support them in preparing high-quality bids".

Andy Norman, a research analyst at the Centre for Progressive Policy think-tank, said the importance of average journey times to the nearest major employment centre by car was much greater in the fund's methodology than journeys by public transport or bike.

He said: "The added importance of car journey times is bound to create a bias towards rural areas. For levelling up, is the average person’s proximity to employment by car really 3.5 times more important than by public transport?"

The methodology was released more than a week after the prospectus for the fund was published by the Government as part of the Budget.

The document says: "While preference will be given to bids from higher priority areas, the bandings do not represent eligibility criteria, nor the amount or number of bids a place can submit.

"Bids from places in all categories will still be considered for funding on their merits of deliverability, value for money and strategic fit, and could still be successful if they are of high enough quality."

The inclusion of average car journeys to work will please leaders in rural North Yorkshire who say the decline in local bus services in recent years mean many people rely on their cars to get around.

Richmondshire district council leader Angie Dale said last week: "The Covid test centre is in Leyburn and you try and get across on the bus from Catterick to Leyburn, you can't.

"It might be the centre within Richmondshire, but you can't get there so you're talking about your transport links to and from areas. We need support into that infrastructure to enable us to grow."

Hull North Labour MP Diana Johnson said: “It appears that the criteria for the various streams of levelling up funding has only been cobbled together in Whitehall after many of the initial decisions had been made and after MPs and the media started asking questions.

"We can now see that by excluding poverty and the Index of Multiple Deprivation from the criteria, it is no coincidence that funding is weighted heavily towards areas that elected Tory MPs.

She added: “The other problem is that there just isn’t enough pork in the barrel.

"Even for the winners in this gerrymandered process, the regeneration funding available is not going to be transformational in scale when compared with what has been achieved elsewhere in the country in recent decades – such as in London Docklands."

Barnsley East MP Steph Peacock said: "By any measurement I could find, it was very hard to justify giving Richmond the money over Barnsley."

"You can look at all the main deprivation indicators and you can't find one really where Richmond is anywhere close to Barnsley and on the main ones Barnsley is double that of Richmond.

"And I think the thing that is both disappointing and outrageously infuriating is the whole point of levelling up, as the government set out, was to bring areas that have fallen behind over the last few years and decades up so that they're not behind, and it makes complete mockery of that."

She added: "Even if the concept of levelling up really sounded like a good one and sounded like one we could all support, it just exposes it as a completely empty slogan."

Asked about criticisms of the methodology used and whether there was any clear definition of levelling up, the Prime Minister's official spokesman said: "As the document sets out, the metrics are focused on identifying places most at need of the type of investments offered through the Levelling Up Fund including town centre and high street regeneration, small scale transport projects, investments in local culture and heritage assets.

"It's up to areas to apply for the fund, and we've set out in that document the metrics that we're focusing on and how people go about applying."

Baroness Armstrong, a Labour life peer who heads up the House of Lords Public Services Committee, was a Government minister when the Index of Multiple Deprivation was developed.

This has not been used for the priority list, with the Government instead focusing on areas with low productivity and where people have long commutes to work.

But she said if the Government was going to use indicators such as investment in public services, it makes sense that more affluent places which do not need the extra support would come out on top.

“If you look at the amount spent on public services in places like Richmond, and therefore, it was thought that should be topped up, of course it's less because, in allocating money at the moment, on national criteria, you take into account need.”

It is for this reason local authority funding should be of a key concern, she said, pointing to councils and health authorities as often the last resort for those in need.

She said: “A lot of these problems, you can't solve them in four years, and we need to be clear with people about what we're doing that will make an effect in the long term and what in the short term.”