As speculation continues over whether the government will axe tens of billions of pounds of investment in the north by scrapping the planned high-speed rail link to Manchester (HS2), ministers have announced plans to spend a fraction of that over ten years to give a “brighter future” to 25 towns over the same area.
Six towns in the North East, along with ten in the North West and nine in Yorkshire & Humberside, will receive £20mn each. Altogether 55 towns between Scotland and the south coast will get £1.1bn between them.
The North East towns earmarked for the grants, which the government describes as “carefully designed to complement the wider levelling up programme” are Eston, Jarrow, Washington, Blyth, Hartlepool and Spennymoor.
Town Boards consisting of community leaders, employers, local authorities, cultural and sports organisations, public sector agencies and the local MP will be set up in each town to deliver the long-term plans and put them to local people.
The Town Boards, says the government, will be given a suite of regeneration powers to unlock more private sector investment by auctioning empty high street shops, reforming licensing rules on shops and restaurants and supporting more housing in town centres.
According to the government:
“More than half the population live in towns, but half-empty high streets, run-down town centres and anti-social behaviour undermine towns in every part of the UK. Today’s announcement marks a change in approach that will put an end to people feeling like their town is ignored by Westminster and empower communities to take back control of their future, taking long term decisions in the interests of local people.
“This plan builds on the government’s central mission to level up the UK by putting more power and money in the hands of people who know their areas best to build a brighter future for their community, creating bespoke initiatives that will spark the regeneration needed.”
Levelling Up Secretary, Michael Gove said:
“We know that in our towns the values of hard work and solidarity, common sense and common purpose, endeavour and quiet patriotism have endured across generations. But for too long, too many of our great British towns have been overlooked and undervalued.
“We are putting this right through our Long-Term Plan for Towns backed by over £1bn. This will empower communities in every part of the UK to take back control of their future, taking long term decisions in the interests of local people. It will mean more jobs, more opportunities and a brighter future for our towns and the people who live and work in them.”
Councils welcome funding
Welcomes for the new funding came today from three of the six North East towns that will benefit.
Northumberland County Council said the support for Blyth would add to the work already underway through the £90mn Energising Blyth regeneration programme to grow, renew and connect the town. Councillor Glen Sanderson, Conservative leader of Northumberland County Council, said:
“This is very welcome news for Blyth.
“Significant change is already happening to revitalise the town centre and capitalise on the huge potential of our leading clean energy sector with the new Culture Venue and Market Place and Energy Campus already being constructed, our new Welding Centre and works well underway on the Northumberland Line.
“This additional long-term investment from government means we can go further to transform the town, deliver better homes, improve neighbourhoods and reduce crime in partnership with local businesses, the community and partners.
Alan Ferguson, chair of Blyth Town Deal Board, said: “This is a real boost for Blyth helping us to deliver improvements that are much needed. The support will accelerate our work together to grow, renew and connect the town, crucially ensuring that local people are included in the opportunities in the town.
“This announcement…will galvanise partnership work between the business community, public sector and community partners to deliver real change on issues that are important to the community.
Councillor Elizabeth Scott, cabinet member for economy and partnerships at Durham County Council, a Liberal Democrat, welcomed the funding for Spennymoor. She said:
“We….look forward it to bringing about additional regeneration activity in the town, with the potential to improve quality of life and create jobs for residents and also attract visitors and further investment.
“The award from government comes amid our ongoing work to deliver regeneration in Spennymoor, with more than £1m invested in the community in recent times including on redevelopment at the former Festival Walk shopping centre site and the town’s leisure centre, creation of new public realm and delivery of targeted business improvement grants.
“We look forward to working with other stakeholders in Spennymoor to deliver investment shaped by the community, pending further guidance from government on how the new funding should be delivered. As this work progresses, we will continue to make the case for investment right across County Durham, to try and ensure all our communities benefit.”
Councillor Graeme Miller (Labour), leader of Sunderland City Council, referring to the fact that next year is the 60th anniversary of the designation of Washington New Town, said:
“These new funds for Washington and many other towns across the country are of course very welcome. I don’t think that Washington is an ‘over-looked’ town either as the pace of employment, business and housing growth here has been tremendous in recent years and Washington continues to attract businesses, investment and people from not just the region but from all over the world.
“We’re at a very early stage on understanding more about how we take this project forward as we look to the 60th anniversary in 2024. However, I’m sure this early present can be put to good use ensuring that Washington in its seventh decade continues to benefit from the ongoing delivery of our ambitious plans for all the city and all its residents.”
Councils where the other North East towns to receive funding under the scheme are located have been asked for their reactions.
It is not surprising that councils should welcome new investment in their areas, and good luck to them. But this Long Term Plan for Towns is being massively oversold by the government. While investment is always welcome, half a billion pounds spread across 25 towns in the three northern regions of North East, North West and Yorkshire & the Humber and over ten years is a paltry amount compared with what is needed just to improve the north’s rail network. The North East alone wants £6.8bn just for transport.
Half a billion pounds would be more than swallowed up by re-opening the Leamside Line linking the Metro at Pelaw with Ferryhill in County Durham, a regional priority, and do more for towns on the route, such as Washington, than a paltry £2mn a year.
That the government would announce a sweetener when it abandoned HS2 to Manchester was not unexpected. But is this all it amounts to? A mere £20mn each spread over ten years for 25 northern towns, of which only six are in the North East.
Taking back control?
The government press release announcing the Long-Term Plan for Towns stresses throughout that they will reflect the interests and priorities of local people and uses one of Michael Gove’s favourite phrases from the Brexit referendum, stating that communities will be empowered to “take back control” – in this case from Whitehall, not Brussels..
Yet it is clear that ministers already know, or think they know, what the money should be spent on – such as reviving hight streets, tackling anti-social behaviour, improving transport and growing the economy – and intend to guide the Town Boards firmly in those directions through a new Towns Task Force based in the Department for Levelling Up and reporting directly to the Prime Minister and Levelling Up Secretary. According to the government:
“This will help Town Boards to develop their plans and advise them on how best to take advantage of government policies, unlock private and philanthropic investment and work with communities.” As if local people sitting on Town Boards needed advice from Whitehall on how to work with their own communities.
The funding under these Long Term Plans for Towns may be welcome as far as it goes and the ideas for spending the money – reviving high streets etc. – may well be on the right lines. But the amounts are nugatory, as usual, and the way the system is being set up, overseen by a Whitehall task force, perhaps at the insistence of a Treasury worried that local people cannot be trusted not to squander even such a small sum as £2mn a year, smacks once again of top-down micro-management rather than taking back control.
HS2 ‘no benefit’ to North East
None of this means that HS2 should go ahead to Manchester – just that much, much more of the tens of billions saved from scrapping it should be invested in the north, preferably on the regional rail network. On this at least the North East’s two metro mayors agree. According to Lord Houchen in the Northern Echo:
“I’ve made my position on HS2 clear time and time again – it will bring no benefits for Teesside, Darlington and Hartlepool. A train line that gets people from London to Manchester slightly faster doesn’t register on our list of priorities and if I was given even a fraction of the HS2 budget we could revolutionise transport across the Tees Valley.
“I would encourage the government to use the funding on transport links that will actually make a difference to hard-working people in places like Teesside, Darlington, and Hartlepool.”
North of Tyne’s Independent Mayor, Jamie Driscoll, told ChronicleLive that HS2 would be of no benefit to the North East and priority should go instead to Northern Powerhouse Rail, the proposed east-west link across the Pennines. He said:
“As it stands, HS2 is of no benefit at all to the people of the North East. It is being scaled back, but the costs are spiralling out of control. Even if it gets to Manchester, that’s 140 miles from Newcastle and 200 miles from Berwick.
“There is a clear economic case for Northern Powerhouse Rail. It will cost about half as much as HS2 to complete and will deliver huge opportunities for our industries and communities.”
So, thanks to the government for not very much for our towns, but how about some really significant investment in the North East’s regional rail network? What about the cross-Pennine route? What about the Leamside Line?
CLICK HERE TO SUPPORT THE BYLINES NETWORK CROWDFUNDER!