It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Rees. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones) on securing this vital debate.
In 2018, the all-party parliamentary group on the UK shared prosperity fund, which I am honoured to chair, set out our expectations of the SPF. One point that we wanted to make very clearly was that we fully accept, and indeed welcome, the transition from the EU role in the structural funds to the shared prosperity fund. We are completely agnostic on the source of the funding and the management of it. We are interested in outcomes and results, and that is what today’s debate is about. I ask colleagues on the Tory Benches, please stop propagating the myth that this is about sour grapes on our part. It is not. We all want the best for our communities. It would be helpful if Members stopped using that damaging rhetoric.
Then and now, our clear message was that it is not a penny less and not a power lost. We have urged Ministers to ensure not only that the EU development funding be replaced pound for pound, but that decisions be taken by those who know our communities best, rather than by remote control from Whitehall and Westminster. Fast-forward three years to this debate on what is effectively the pilot for the SPF—the community renewal fund—and unfortunately it is becoming increasingly clear that the APPG’s recommendations have fallen on deaf ears.
Our disappointment in the Government’s response is based on five central concerns. First, the Government’s use of spin, smoke and mirrors means that the announcements are not what they seem. Money is moved and funds are rebadged to give the impression of extra resources, but the reality is that there is no new money.
Secondly, it is clear that the programmes are being used for nakedly political purposes and not directed to communities with the greatest need. Perhaps the most egregious example of this pork barrel politics came when a chunk of the towns fund was siphoned off to the Chancellor’s wealthy constituency. Now we see the same shenanigans with the UK community renewal fund, which includes so-called priority areas such as Derbyshire Dales, Herefordshire and Richmondshire, yet excludes the likes of Caerphilly and Bridgend. It is precisely the same story with the levelling-up fund and there could be more trouble ahead. If the community renewal fund is anything to go by, the £1 billion shared prosperity fund will be a veritable bonanza of pork barrel politics for Conservative MPs.
Thirdly, the bidding process seems to have been designed to hinder effective delivery. Its competitive nature is not only inconsistent with the stated purpose of targeting on the basis of greatest need, but wastes precious local authority time and resources and is too short term. The community renewal fund is allocated money for only a one-year cycle, whereas the EU funding stream was allocated on the basis of seven years of funds to communities that fell below a certain level of deprivation. Will the Minister therefore please commit today to scrapping the inefficient competitive bidding process for the shared prosperity fund and replacing it with a system based on the strategic allocation of resources over a multi-annual period?
Fourthly, the Conservative Government’s centralised approach betrays the basic principle of devolution. Until recently, spending on regional and local economic development was a devolved matter, or, in the context of EU funding, undertaken by the devolved nations within a framework agreed between the UK and the EU. The Scottish and Welsh Governments are major players, with responsibility for agencies that play a big part in local and regional development. The UK Government must therefore bring the devolved Administrations into the heart of the decision-making process. The Welsh Labour Government know Wales, its economy, its needs and its people far better than a civil servant in Whitehall can ever do.
Finally, the delivery timescale of the community renewal fund and the levelling-up fund is frankly shambolic. Already overstretched council teams, who are dealing with the demands of a pandemic, are being asked to meet unrealistic deadlines with incomplete information on the funds. Neath Port Talbot Council has done a fantastic job in putting proposals together at the last minute, but it could better serve residents if it were given more time and information.
The terms “levelling up” and “community renewal” should have real meaning—to the constituents we represent, to the areas that have been hit hardest by 11 years of austerity, and to the industries and sectors that have been hardest-hit by the pandemic. Unfortunately it appears that, for the UK Government, they are little more than slogans.