The towns fund: great in theory, but in practice, not a lot, and it leaves out London, bringing accusations of gerrymandering. Announced by the last PM on a hunt for votes for her doomed EU withdrawal Bill, when there was another deadline looming, it was seen as a Brexit bribe to bring prosperity after we leave the EU. By the end of the year, an election was called, and it was clear that 60 out of the 61 lucky winners were in Tory target seats. A lot of them translated into gains, such as Newcastle-under-Lyme and Bishop Auckland.
The Public Accounts Committee noted how criteria for inclusion and adjudicating success were “vague”, while Professor Hanretty, giving evidence, went further, labelling it pork-barrelling based on party politics, not need. The remainder of it is a competitive bidding process, leaving towns, which are not a commonly understood unit of analysis, pitted against one other at a time when the country needs bringing together. Why not suburbs? Marginal Cheadle got, whereas nearby Didsbury did not. London suburbs, too, are blighted by all the guidance that was initially published—ageing population, reducing economic prosperity, high streets with reducing footfall. Ealing has a housing crisis, with 10,000 on the waiting list, and a social care crisis, yet our budget has been slashed by 64% since 2010—36p in every £1 it had—leaving huge holes, even with the covid extra. Every time there is another Government U-turn, there is more expenditure in this failed tiering experiment.
Yes, our capital generates enormous wealth, but we are never too far away from pockets of poverty. In this borough, Westminster, Church Street ward is, on some indexes, the most deprived in the country—it is certainly the most overcrowded. In East Acton and South Acton, the streets are definitely not paved with gold, yet London is completely ineligible. Food bank use has doubled in the last five years. It has 40% child poverty and pensioner poverty. The fastest-growing unemployment in the country is found in London.
Small beer and a drop in the ocean, compared with the revenue that we have lost from council coffers since 2010 and the EU structural funds that we will no longer get, will not cut it. Also, pitting the rest of the country against London—this demonising of our capital—is a dangerous policy. The only transparent thing about the towns fund is its naked politicking. It said that it would take the decisions away from Whitehall, but instead it has delivered them to Conservative campaign headquarters; the decision making is taking place there now, not in Whitehall. Perhaps the Secretary of State, when he is not scrapping with his pals to get money for his own patch, should stop his imagined war on the woke, because there is work to be done.