Levelling-up Agenda — [Mrs Maria Miller in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:50 pm on 15th June 2021.

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Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change) 2:50 pm, 15th June 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward.

Clearly, this debate is about a con trick—a gimmick. It is actually the Tories admitting that they have continually let down communities, regions and nations for decades. However, they are now saying, “We’ll give some money back and everything will be better.”

Clearly, additional strategic investment is always welcome, but this investment is not strategic and it also bypasses the devolution settlement. We have heard from other contributors that this investment is far too piecemeal.

When we consider Westminster failures, this levelling-up fund does not even come close to making amends. If we go back to Maggie Thatcher’s flagship policy of right to buy council houses, the fact that initially all receipts went into Westminster coffers meant the erosion of council and social housing stock, with no funds available for new builds. In Scotland, it has taken the Scottish National party Government to try to turn this situation round, with record numbers of new build houses for rent. Unfortunately, England still has an incoherent housing policy that will cause further inequality.

Oil and gas produced £350 billion worth of revenue for the Exchequer and yet there was no consideration about setting up an oil fund to allow legacy considerations rather than the squandering of those revenues in tax cuts. Yet now we are supposed to be grateful for money coming back.

Look at the devastation of coalmining communities. Where is the coherent strategy for levelling them up? When opencast coalmining companies in my constituency went into liquidation in 2013, they left millions of pounds worth of outstanding restoration works and again the UK Government were nowhere to be seen. They did not contribute a penny and even refused to support a coal tax scheme that would have funded that restoration work.

We know that the levelling-up fund is labelled as money that might otherwise have gone to the EU, but the reality is that the likes of Scotland had to make use of EU structural funds to offset Westminster letting us down. Indeed, the fact that the highlands became an EU objective 1 category area under Westminster rule says everything. However, that did allow the highlands to access funding for roads and bridges, including the upgrading of the last remaining single-track trunk road in the UK. That money funded harbour upgrades as well, which was real, strategic levelling up.

Now, conversely, we have Scottish Tories demanding road upgrades for schemes that Westminster failed to deliver on, and we know that it was the Tories who labelled Scottish fishermen as “expendable”. It is those same fishermen who have now been given a poor Brexit deal, and we know that our farmers will be the next to suffer because of the trade deals that have been negotiated by Westminster.

Even when we consider the electricity grid charging scheme, we see that Scotland faces the highest grid charges in Europe, so the system prejudices development in Scotland in areas that would actually benefit from levelling up. Real levelling up would also have seen the contract for difference procurement process amended to include local content.

To be clear, I will support bids by my local authority if they bring additional strategic investment, and I will also support community groups to try to access funding. But the process is a farce. Like the stronger towns fund, it is likely to be politically managed rather than having a proper needs-based assessment. The fact that the first bids have to be submitted by 18 June and be shovel-ready to be delivered in a year confirms a lack of strategic thinking and oversight. There is a real risk that hurried bids will be accepted, leading to cost and programme overruns later on.

Pitting MPs and local authorities against each other is not the way to tackle structural inequalities. My constituency needs additional support, but this is not the way that it should be managed.