The Lancashire All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) has written to Rishi Sunak asking him to guard against the risk of the county losing out as a result of any future changes to the shape of local government in the region.
The county’s MPs have also called for clarity about a priority order drawn up to consider bids to the fund, which has seen the 14 local authority areas in Lancashire split across three categories. In the letter to Number 11, APPG chair and Morecambe and Lunesdale MP David Morris says that the approach taken “seems to be inconsistent”.
Councils can apply for £20m to fund projects focused on town centre regeneration – such as the reclamation of brownfield sites and the revamping of derelict buildings – and cultural initiatives. They can also seek up to £50m for transport schemes ranging from work to improve and redesign local roads and upgrade public transport, through to larger-scale projects which aim to cut carbon emissions and boost the economy.
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Seven Lancashire council areas – Blackburn, Blackpool, Burnley, Hyndburn, Pendle, Preston and Rossendale – have been given category 1 status as they are deemed to have the “highest levels of identified need”.
Chorley, Fylde, Lancaster and West Lancashire have been placed in category 2, with Ribble Valley, South Ribble and Wyre in the lowest-priority list.
While all bids to the fund will be considered on their own merits, irrespective of ranking, “preference” will be given to the higher priority categories, according to the government’s guidance. The letter to the Chancellor asks for details about “the basis” for the prioritisation decisions in order to enable Lancashire to “maximise the fund”.
The £4.8bn pot is expected to be open until 2024/25. In the meantime, Lancashire’s local authority map could have been redrawn as part of any devolution the county strikes with the government, which would likely see the number of councils slashed.
David Morris says such a change could complicate a requirement tying the tally of bids each council can make to the number of MPs whose constituency lies wholly in its area.
“My main concern is how we can access this funding – that’s what the letter is about,” the Conservative MP told the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS).
“It’s not to do with what [form of local government] is coming in the future, but what we can expect to get out of the fund [given] what’s coming in the future.
“The Levelling Up Prospectus also says that an MP can only back one project…but I do think if there are two MPs in one district, it’s very ambiguous whether both would have to agree on a project together. They could [each] back a different one, but how far does that get them?
“The constructive manner in which the APPG have engaged with this, means that the Treasury are looking at it in a very favourable light,” said Mr. Morris who described the group as providing an opportunity “to amplify Lancashire’s cause” when it was launched late last year.
The government’s guidance states that MP support is not a precondition of a successful bid, but it expects councils to engage with MPs about their plans. Where a constituency crosses local authority borders, the government says that one council should be identified as the “lead bidder”.
County councils like Lancashire and standalone authorities - such as those in Blackpool and Blackburn with Darwen - can make an additional bid for a transport project over and above any others submitted according to the criteria in relation to the number of MPs in an area.
Speaking earlier this year, Downtown In Business chief executive Frank McKenna – whose organisation is acting as the secretariat for the APPG – said that residents “don’t care what the local government structures are, as long they feel Lancashire is getting its fair share of resources and is punching its weight”.
He added: “I think Lancashire’s diversity is a strength. There are lots of different initiatives that the government are coming forward with – and there are not many challenges that the government could put forward to Lancashire that we wouldn’t be able to have a go at – whether it be in Blackpool, Preston, Blackburn or elsewhere.”
When approached about the APPG’s letter, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said: “The £4.8 billion Levelling Up Fund is open to all places in the United Kingdom and will play a vital role in helping to support and regenerate communities.”
The LDRS understands that the operation of the fund will be kept under review to reflect feedback from local areas and any wider changes in government policy.