The High Court has granted the Good Law Project permission to challenge the government’s ‘Levelling Up Fund’.
The huge £4.8 billion investment pot was brought in to inject capital into towns that needed it the most, but has been blighted with accusations that the Tory Party is merely using it to splash cash on places that are of political benefit to them.
Constituencies of chancellor Rishi Sunak and communities secretary Robert Jenrick – Richmondshire and Newark and Sherwood DCs respectively – were given funds, while places such as Barnsley and Salford, which are both in Labour MPs’ constituencies and are among the most deprived parts of the country according to the index of multiple deprivation, were ranked as a second-tier priorities.
“Pork barrel politics”
The Good Law Project, a campaign group that has taken legal action against the government multiple times in recent years, is accusing it of “pork barrel politics” over the system deployed to prioritise areas for cash, which some argued favoured rural areas.
The criteria used measures such as commuting distance to work by car, empty housing and productivity levels.
Judges have agreed to hear a legal challenge formally filed against Rishi Sunak, Robert Jenrick and Grant Shapps in their ministerial roles, stating that grounds for the case are “arguable.”
A statement from the campaigners said: “The huge £4.8bn fund pretends to be the centrepiece of a levelling up agenda – but we think it’s just a way to funnel money into constituencies of political benefit to the Conservative Party. This permission decision means the government will have to defend itself in court.”
Barnsley, which scores highly in the index of multiple deprivation but was not put in the first priority category for the levelling up fund, had also been in discussions with lawyers over potential legal action related to the levelling up fund, with support from several other councils.
But Barnsley’s leader Stephen Houghton (Lab) told LGC today that it has decided not to pursue a legal case. “We had our own legal advice around that and the way the government had processed the scheme, so we knew it was going to be difficult [to win],” he said.
“Obviously we sympathise with the Good Law Project’s case because we don’t feel the criteria used was the right criteria or that it was applied appropriately. There has been enough comment about the political nature of what the government did.”
The Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government has been surveying councils this month about how they view the applications process and delivery of government funding schemes. It says responses will be used to ensure funding delivery methods, including for the upcoming UK Shared Prosperity Fund, work for local places and that the right level of support is provided.
Cllr Houghton said that “at the very least”, he hopes the concerns raised over the levelling up fund mean the government “doesn’t use such criteria in any future funding schemes”.
“It is clearly not how you will fund those in most need,” he added.
An MHCLG spokesperson said that it would not be appropriate to comment on ongoing legal action.
“The £4.8bn levelling up fund is open to all places in Great Britain and will play a vital role in helping to support and regenerate communities,” said the department. “The published methodology makes clear the metrics used to identify places judged to be most in need.”