What’s in the government's Levelling Up plan for Northamptonshire?
Just one definite new initiative for Northants has come out of the government’s Levelling Up plan
By Sarah Ward
Two years after it was first put forward as a manifesto pledge, the government’s long-promised Levelling Up white paper was published yesterday.
Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove has said the eight year strategy ‘seeks to end that historic injustice’ of regional inequalities which hold areas back and it will also ‘call time on the postcode lottery.
Extremely wide in scope, it outlines broad plans across virtually every element of UK society from boosting employment and productivity, decreasing the life expectancy gap between local areas, restoring pride in local town centres, cutting violent crime, improving primary school literacy to increasing social housing.
An immediate criticism has been the lack of new funding that appears to be coming with the new policy. Instead it often refers to existing funding pots already allocated such as the Towns Fund (Corby and Northampton have already been pledged millions from this), the Community Renewal Fund (which has already been distributed in Northamptonshire) and the Future High Streets Fund (which saw Northampton awarded £25m last year).
When we went to publish last night none of the county’s seven Conservative MPs had tweeted about the white paper, perhaps the clearest indication of what’s in it for Northamptonshire.
A weighty tome of 350 pages, we look at the new key elements of the policy and some of the possibles for our county.
The definite new initiative
Education Investment Area
The only concrete new announcement for Northamptonshire is that North Northamptonshire has been named as one of the country’s 55 new education investment areas (EIAs). These are being established where school outcomes are currently weakest.
According to the latest performance data published by the new North unitary council only 73 per cent of primary schools in the area are rated as good or above, well below the government target of 85 per cent. (In contrast the secondary schools are performing above the government target with 78 per cent being rated as good or above, seven per cent over the national aim).
The government says these new EIAs will benefit from intensive investment and support. Retention payments will be offered by the DfE to ensure schools in these areas can retain their best teachers. The areas will also be prioritised for new specialist sixth form free schools.
A new sixth form college takes up the bulk of the £19m allocated to the Corby Town Fund, so it remains to be seen whether this will form part of the EIA for North Northamptonshire or whether there will be additional colleges funded.
The possible new initiatives that could impact Northamptonshire:
20 places across the country will receive government investment to begin Kings Cross style developments. So far only Sheffield and Wolverhampton have been named and the government says the other areas will be those that can ‘demonstrate strong local leadership and ambition and where the impact of existing investment can be maximised to catalyse economic transformation.’
It says it will work with local leaders, the private sector and a range of government agencies and departments to focus on where investment can be maximised – for example, in health and education facilities and in roads and railways; and where there are deliverable development opportunities – for example, vacant shopping centres or industrial premises.
Northampton, which is bidding to become a city, is perhaps the town best placed to become one of the 18 remaining areas, but with a huge need across the area and investment already being pledged to the town through the Town Fund and the Future High Streets Fund, competition will be strong.
Funding for youth and social investment
The white paper includes a change to the existing dormant asset scheme - which enables banks and building societies to channel funds from dormant banks and building society accounts towards good causes.
The intention is now to expand the scheme to include certain assets from the pensions, insurance, investment and wealth management and securities sectors to be used for public benefit. The estimate of this is a further £880m, with a public consultation launched later this year about what social or social or environmental purposes Dormant Assets Scheme should fund. This will include options on youth, financial inclusion and social investment, as well as considering a new Community Wealth Fund proposal to distribute funding to local communities.
The All Parliamentary Party Group for Left Behind Communities has been advocating for a new Community Wealth Fund for the most deprived areas and so if listened to some of Northants most poorest communities could eventually see some cash funnelled to them.
Empty shops being filled
Town centres across Northants are currently blighted by empty shops. In the white paper the government says it will ‘incentivise landlords to fill vacant units by giving local authorities the power to require landlords to rent out vacant properties to prospective tenants.’
You can read the white paper in full here
The five ‘left behind’ communities in our county are the ones that need to be levelled up the most. Kingswood and Hazel Leys in Corby, Kettering’s Avondale Grange, Queensway in Wellingborough and Kings Heath and Talavera in Northampton are those recognised by a government backed formula as having higher levels of deprivation coupled with a lack of community infrastructure. NN Journal is in the middle of a year-long project reporting from these areas and looking at the issues they face. You can read more here
We spoke to community leaders from the areas and ask for their response to the Levelling Up white paper:
Avondale Grange Labour Cllr Anne Lee
“North Northamptonshire already found out in December that it would receive funding for several worthwhile projects through the Community Renewal Fund, and that money (for Green Recovery and Green Infrastructure) is welcome.
But how will it resolve the dire lack of social mobility in my division? After all, many families are struggling to get by.
Will the measures announced in the Levelling up paper help our Council to build another shelter for domestic abuse victims and their children? I fear not. Will the government provide free school meals again during holidays as it did during the pandemic? Will the government shore up food banks? Is there extra money for schools to catch up on the educational arrears of our children? We badly need council-maintained nurseries and to relaunch the SureStart centres that used to support struggling families.
I fear that the White Paper is fundamentally inadequate.”
Zoe McGhee, ward councillor for Kingswood and chair of the Levelling Up scrutiny group at North Northamptonshire Council
Despite not seeing the immediate benefits of the Levelling Up white paper, Cllr McGhee is hopeful that the work her group is currently doing could be the lever to tap into future funding.
“What we are trying to do before we ask for any money is to have a level of credible data and evidence, so that we can then go to scrutiny, and the executive and full council (with a plan for endorsement).
I am certainly hopeful (that the authority can put in a bid for future government funding). I am going to do everything in my power to benefit the left behind areas.
NNC does not have a massive amount of money - it does not have a levelling up pot so levelling up also has to come from other channels. From corporations and businesses getting involved in the levelling up agenda and from residents. That is the way to do it.”
Talavera’s Liberal Democrat Cllr Dennis Meredith
“I’m very disappointed. I was hoping for one million investment for our area for regeneration. I would have hoped our MP Michael Ellis would have spoken with Michael Gove and made the case.”
Queensway ward’s Cllr King Lawal
“It’s clearly an ambitious plan with lots in it. I particularly welcome any new powers and resources for local administrations. And the focus on educational attainment, with the commitment to driving down innumeracy and illiteracy in our communities.
Notably, I agree with what Damien Green MP said in the House of Commons on Wednesday, that it is indeed a “genuinely one nation conservative document”
Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats on West Northamptonshire Council Cllr Jonathan Harris
“I can see nothing new in this levelling up white paper for West Northamptonshire. It’s like a glossy PR document - it looks slick but actually offers nothing new.
The document refers to levelling up funds, towns fund, future high streets, community renewal fund and project gigabit. All these are announcements that have already been made. There appears to be no new money or any new ideas.
According to a report by Centre for Cities just last week, 24.5% of Northampton’s town units were empty after June 2021: this makes it the eighth worst in the country. We all want to see Northampton revived and thriving, unfortunately issues are far deeper rooted than just making town centres look smarter. People have, by and large, chosen to move online, and this has only been accelerated by the pandemic. People now want experiences, individuality and of course value for money.
The white paper talks of further improvements in public transport but just this week I have learned that a key bus route, the X7 in my ward, is being reduced from twice an hour to once an hour. We’re being told that it’s temporary due to covid and driver pressures but I can’t get any clear commitment as to when the service will resume.
That’s the real story on the ground for people.
Furthermore, the report is thin on new ideas and fails to fully harness the green agenda. We continue to build houses, warehouses and other buildings that are not carbon net zero with hands being tied by existing planning regulation which is not progressive enough.
The thing that is most depressing is that this comes out in the very same week that we read in the Department of Health and Social Care’s annual report, buried on page 199,of the £8.7 billion of losses on Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) bought in 2020/21.
The findings concluded that the department failed the test of competence. This on top of the news that the Chancellor is writing off £4.7 billion in COVID loans. That’s billions of wasted money. Tax payers’ money.
With this backdrop, it's hard to be convinced that there are either the ideas or competence to deliver.”
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