Towns Fund

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:27 pm on 4th February 2021.

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Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 4:27 pm, 4th February 2021

I congratulate Paul Bristow on setting the scene so well. Owing to the benefits, it would be churlish of anyone to say that the scheme was not welcome. The towns fund was announced by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government in July 2019, with total funding of £3.6 billion composed of three separate strands. I welcomed that at the time, but back in November I asked about the potential success of Northern Ireland in similar scenarios:

“It is my understanding that local enterprise partnerships and investment promotion agencies across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were invited to submit nominations for the second round of the high potential opportunities scheme by 17 April 2020. I would be anxious to know the success of Northern Ireland applications for the towns fund.”—[Official Report, 18 November 2020; Vol. 684, c. 357-358.]

From the report, I see plenty of wonderful projects, and I welcome them, but I note that there is no information about the position of other countries within the UK, which I would have liked to see given the statement by the then Chancellor Philip Hammond when the future high streets fund was first announced at the 2018 Budget:

“So if Britain’s high streets are to remain at the centre of our community life, they will need to adapt.”—[Official Report, 29 October 2018; Vol. 648, c. 663.]

It is clear that that was not an England-only aim when the scheme was designed, so it should follow that Scotland and Wales, which form the rest of Britain, and Northern Ireland, which makes the last section of the wonderful UK, should have similar projects. “Stronger together”, as I always say, needs to be included at every stage. I am anxious that this House takes a holistic approach and ensures that projects in Northern Ireland see similar additional funding, whether directly or under the Barnett formula. I ask the Minister to address that in his summing up.

We are living in difficult days, none more so than for our high streets and the capital projects that the towns fund was designed to address. That includes projects to improve transport access to town centres and vehicle and pedestrian flow in town centres; congestion-relieving infrastructure; infrastructure to facilitate new housing and office space, and projects that seek to substitute underused and persistently vacant retail units with residential units. We have to look at that in the future. There are certainly worthy projects in my area, and I call on the Minister to work with all his counterparts in all devolved areas to ensure that similar goals are achieved UK-wide.

I welcome the scheme and its aim, and I look forward to seeing how it fulfils the initial goal of improving the British high street. In the words of Margaret Thatcher, we can never forget that Northern Ireland is as British as Finchley. We deserve similar, and I look forward to better understanding how that can be achieved in tandem with devolved Administrations.