Towns such as Bolton, Cheadle, Preston and Southport were awarded a share of £186m from the Government’s £3.6bn Towns Fund, but the Budget stopped short of allocating significant new money for North West projects.
Among some of the disappointments was the Government’s rejection of a £70m funding request for the Eden Project North leisure attraction in Morecambe, while hopes that the region would be chosen as the home of the newly established Infrastructure Bank were dashed when Leeds was selected instead.
In delivering the 2021 Budget, Chancellor Rishi Sunak once again insisted that the Government is committed to levelling up the economy and “spreading prosperity across every part of the UK”.
“Our future economy demands a different economic geography,” he said.
The Budget documents contain several announcements of funding to benefit the region, including confirmation of the £14m 2021/22 allocation set aside in the 2020 budget for transport upgrades across the Manchester and Liverpool city regions, as well as £4.8m for a hydrogen recycling facility in Holyhead as part of a bigger ‘growth deal’ package for North Wales.
Meanwhile, Sunak used the Budget to announce the latest councils to have won money from the £3.6bn Towns Fund intended to rejuvenate local high streets and town centres. These are: Preston, Workington, Bolton, Cheadle, Carlisle, Leyland, Southport and Rochdale, which will receive a share of £186m of the total, in an attempt to “redraw the country’s economic map”, the chancellor said.
The latest set of allocations comes after the Government’s last announcement, on Boxing Day, of the first 72 towns selected to receive an £831m share of the fund.
Southport was the biggest winner today; the town was allocated £37.5m of Towns Fund cash towards projects including a waterfront events centre and the regeneration of Lord Street.
Cllr Ian Maher, leader of Sefton Council, said: “After an incredibly hard year for the town’s businesses and residents, the announcement of this funding is a really positive way to start 2021. [We are] ready to get started on many of the key projects as soon as we can.”
Additionally, Bolton was awarded £23m towards the conversion of the Wellsprings centre into an innovation hub and an upgrade for the town’s library, while Leyland is to receive £25m and Carlisle is to receive £19.7m of funding from the Government.
However, Eden North developer Eden Project International had requested £70m from Government to get the scheme off the ground but there was no mention of the attraction in Sunak’s budget.
“It’s no secret we were hoping the Government would provide funding for Eden Project North in this Budget, but we are not viewing this as a major setback,” said David Harland, Eden Project International chief executive.
“We were encouraged by the Chancellor’s commitments to levelling up and a green recovery and we feel Eden Project North fits perfectly with these agendas. We are as confident as ever that our case for investment is incredibly strong and we know that many in Government feel the same. We will continue making our case and remain hopeful for good news in a future announcement.”
Other commentators said they believe Whitehall has not gone far enough in this year’s Budget to boost growth at a crucial juncture for the region as it embarks on its recovery from the pandemic.
Jessica Bowles, director of strategy at developer Bruntwood, welcomed Sunak’s attempts to level up but said they “won’t move the needle on reducing regional inequalities, the roots of which lie much deeper”.
And Steve Rotheram, Metro Mayor of the Liverpool City Region, said: “In my view, the measures announced today fall short of the comprehensive long-term recovery plan and investment in our public services like the NHS, schools and local councils, which regions like ours need if the government is to achieve its stated aim of levelling up.
“I was equally disappointed that the Chancellor had almost nothing to say about devolving more power and funding away from Whitehall, when areas like ours could be taking steps now to boost the economic recovery, had we been given more backing by government.
“Overall, I think today was a missed opportunity for the government to set out a clear long-term vision for our economic recovery in a post-pandemic, post-brexit world.”
Whether or not the Government is serious about economic equality could become clearer once its £4.8m Levelling Up fund, pledged in the Spending Review last November, is rolled out in the coming months.
The Government has yet to detail where the money will come from and how it will be spent. Today’s Budget said a prospectus would be published in the coming months that would set out the investment strategy and how places can bid for funding.