A bureaucratic “Beauty Contest” of glossy brochures, costly in time, effort and cash for participants – Owl
A senior Devon councillor has criticised the government’s levelling-up bidding process, calling it “absolutely the wrong way to go about it.”
Ollie Heptinstall, local democracy reporter www.radioexe.co.uk
Liberal Democrat Julian Brazil, opposition leader at Devon County Council who also sits on South Hams District Council, was speaking after a number of Devon bids to the fund’s second round were rejected at the start of the year.
These included a bid by Teignbridge District Council for government cash to create a new cycle route between Newton Abbot and Torquay, a new relief road for Cullompton in Mid Devon, and an East Devon bid for the Axe Valley.
A number of applications were successful though, with a total of £45 million going towards an extension to Dinan Way in Exmouth and town centre transport improvements, a new railway station at Okehampton and a Clean Maritime Innovation Centre in Appledore.
The levelling-up fund awarded £1.7 billion to projects in October 2021 and another £2.1 billion in January. So far, more than £300 million of this has been handed out to projects in the south west.
However, speaking to Devoncast from Radio Exe, Cllr Brazil said of the process: “I do find the way that the government hands out this money, with all the strings attached, is absolutely the wrong way to go about it.
“If you want to give levelling-up money to communities, give it to local authorities and let them decide how they want to spend it. But I think this [process] of making areas compete against each other is timely, costly and I don’t think, in the end, will necessarily produce the best results.”
He also criticised the “over-centralised” spread of power in the country: “Westminster has the money and it will decide, and I just think that’s disappointing. I’d much prefer to see that funding devolved down to the regions or to Devon itself and [let] Devon County decide.
“Much closer to the people. Much more democratically accountable.”
Labour’s shadow secretary of state for levelling-up, housing and communities, Lisa Nandy, has also criticised the bidding process and the “Hunger Games-style beauty contest for levelling-up funds.”
But Councillor Philip Skinner, leader of the Conservative group on East Devon District Council, defended the process, telling Devoncast: “We’ve been securing money in this way for a long time now, and in actual fact it’s really a good public process. It’s not hidden from view from anybody.”
He hailed the £15.7 million of cash given to Exmouth from the fund and said: “It is very unfortunate when other authorities – Teignbridge and the like – put bids in and you don’t win, but you don’t always get things on the first round.”
Cllr Skinner added: “Local authorities really need to work up schemes to get them put forward to government, so if you can imagine it’s almost like putting a business plan forward to a bank. And this is almost the same sort of process.
“So, what the government is saying is ‘we’re not just going to dole out money to you for you to prop up what may be things that are not actually going to deliver for the money that’s come from central government,’ and it’s making local authorities really focus and concentrate. And I think it’s a good thing.”
There is expected to be a third round of the fund within the next year, in which unsuccessful councils are likely to be able to bid again.