Levelling up’s ‘tyranny of competitive funding’

In the absence of any evidence-based central resource allocation, Whitehall falls back on the easy option: create a competition.

Winners can be judged on the “weight” of the submission (literally) and the glossiness of the brochures. It favours those local authorities who already have spare capacity over those who are already resource constrained.

Favours style over substance. –  Owl (from experience)


Speakers at Room151’s Local Authority Treasurers Investment Forum (LATIF) North have expressed concern about the funding processes established by central government as part of the levelling up agenda.

Professor Steven Broomhead, chief executive of Warrington Borough Council, criticised the “tyranny of competitive funding”. He said this reflected central government’s top-down approach, and  suggested that “SW1 in the next five years will still be making all the decisions”.

“With levelling up there are no additional resources except where you have to bid through a tyranny of competitive funding for money that is already in government programmes – town deals, skills accelerator, levelling up funds.”

He said that bidding processes were time-consuming and directed effort away from strategic policies that could make a difference to local people in their communities.

“It is dead easy to set up a competition for this, that and the other. I would like to see things funded properly through a policy-based, evidence-based approach and mainstream the funding rather than all these little pots of money, which keep the civil servants very busy.”

Lisa Harris, executive director of place at St Helens Council, said her plea to government would be to join up the different funding regimes and offer long-term revenue funding. “All too often we can be granted funding with one hand and then funding pulled elsewhere.”

It is about joining up those funding regimes at government so that we have a continuation of funding, so that we have a much more balanced funding portfolio in order to make that long-lasting difference and change.”

Harris said that competitive bidding processes often required external assistance from consultants because there was no capacity left in local government. “The most frustrating thing for me is that that competition means we don’t have time to collaborate and we don’t have time to innovate.”

Ministerial mixed messages

Ian Knowles, chief executive of West Lindsey District Council, highlighted an issue with the government’s £2.6bn Shared Prosperity Fund (SPF). The SPF is due to replaces EU structural funds, with all areas of the UK receiving an allocation based on a formula rather than competitive bids.

In England, SPF funds will be devolved to the mayoral combined authorities or to the Greater London Authority and, in localities outside of these areas, to unitary or lower-tier authorities. But Knowles said this conflicted with previous messages from ministers emphasising the role of district councils in place shaping.

“I think there are mixed messages there in terms of how [SPF allocations] will operate within two-tier environments,” he told delegates.

“I would like to see government following through on the fair funding arrangements that they have been talking about for years. Business rates needs to get sorted – we have been waiting for that for far too long. If you can get a better funding base, then we can start to make those plans going forward – particularly if we can get a three- or four-year settlement.”

Jackie Weaver, chief officer of the Cheshire Association of Local Councils, highlighted the relationship between town and parish councils and county, district and unitary authorities.

“For town and parish councils, it is a blessing and a curse that we get no central government funding at all. But then we have the opportunity of getting funding from our principal authorities.”

However, Weaver said that grants from principal authorities were often tied to particular priorities “It would be nice if it started at grass-roots level, and you said ‘come to us with something innovative and we will consider it’ even if it doesn’t tick one of these boxes.”