I understand that ministers are being pressured to rapidly approve a new, £1.6bn towns fund. The suspicion among ministers is that this fund, which is spread over seven years, is all part of Number 10’s efforts to get the support of some Labour MPs for Theresa May’s Brexit deal.
The write round asking for ministers’ approval for this scheme declares that, ‘This government is committed to supporting communities that feel left behind’. The region which will receive the most money per capita is the Black Country.
One cabinet minister tells me that while the write round letter has come from James Brokenshire ‘I don’t believe this has been invented in the MHLG (Ministry of Housing and Local Government)’. 26 out of 38 LEPS (Local Enterprise Partnerships) will share a billion of funding between them. The largest recipients of money are Greater Manchester which will receive £121.9 million and Leeds City Region which gets £107.4 million. There is then £600 million that communities can bid for.
I am told that there has been some ‘push back on the write round’. But given the importance of this money to May’s planning for obtaining a parliamentary majority for her Brexit deal, this fund is going to be approved.
The crucial question is what this pot of money is spent on. If it goes on improving infrastructure in places that are economically underperforming, it could be a sensible use of cash. Britain’s towns do need better connectivity, both physical and digital. New roads and faster broadband would boost growth in these areas. But if this money just ends up funding a series of pet projects with little economic worth then it’ll be the worst kind of pork barrel politics.
Perhaps, though, the most important question is how many Labour MPs this money helps May win over. She is going to need scores of them to vote for her deal to get it through given the opposition of some on her own side. Will £1.6bn be enough to make a meaningful difference?