Sunak accused of ‘naked pork barrel politics’ as ‘levelling up’ cash handed out

No targets will be set to judge if Boris Johnson’s ‘levelling up’ pledge has been a success, minister reveals

MPs told voters will decide - prompting accusation that spending allocations are ‘purely about getting re-elected’

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Wednesday 17 March 2021 11:03

No targets will be set to assess if Boris Johnson’s “levelling up” pledge has been achieved, a minister has revealed – insisting the voters will decide.

The decision to provide no measure of success or failure came as Eddie Hughes claimed civil servants – not ministers – had decided the criteria which has heavily skewed grants to Tory-held areas.

The allocations from the £4.8bn fund have provoked uproar, after the leafy North Yorkshire seat of Chancellor Rishi Sunak was given higher priority than struggling Barnsley.

Amid accusations of “pork barrel politics”, it was then revealed that levels of deprivation – the normal criteria for handing out poverty-fighting cash – had not been a factor.

In the Commons, Mr Hughes, the local government minister, provoked surprise by telling MPs: “We decided to leave the criteria to civil servants.

“We set out the expectation of what we hope to achieve. We left it to civil servants to decide what the criteria was, so that we didn’t have any of the political influence that he is suggesting.”

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The minister was then asked what indicators would be used to decide if the levelling-up policy had been “successful” – beyond “announcing lots of money”.

But he dismissed the suggestion, saying: “The British electorate will probably do that at the next election, so I look forward to seeing how that turns out.”

Toby Perkins, a Labour MP, called the remark “absolutely shameless”, adding it laid bare that the spending was “purely about getting re-elected”.

More than a year ago, The Independent asked No 10 how the effectiveness of the levelling up policy would be measured and was told ‘wait for the Budget”.

Labour, when promising to “close the North-South divide”, set detailed targets for raising properity in the poorest regions and for closing huge gaps in life expectancy with wealthier areas.

But Mr Hughes has now said there will be no benchmarks at all, as he told MPs: “We’re levelling up everywhere.”

The local authorities of five Cabinet ministers are receiving levelling up funds to “support town centre and high street regeneration, local transport projects, and cultural and heritage assets”.

Instead of prioritising deprivation, money is going to rural areas with low productivity and long commutes to work – factors that appear to favour Conservative parts of the country.

Meanwhile, 45 places have shared a further £1bn of Towns Fund grants, of which only four are in Opposition-held seats.

Labour’s Steve Reed protested that, even areas receiving cash, were still “getting less than they got” before a decade of local government cuts.

“It’s a bit like a burglar who sneaks into your house in the dead of night, strips it bare, and then expects gratitude for handing back your TV set,” he said.

And he added: “The minister’s claim that all the data about this is freely available is nonsense and shows they have no intention of being open and transparent with the public.”

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