Labour calls for clarity over funding pot rules as council leader says perception of 'affluent' Richmondshire is wrong
Labour has called for transparency over the criteria for which funding has been prioritised for different areas as the leader of the council in Rishi Sunak’s under-fire constituency said it was not as affluent as many assumed.
Shadow Chancellor Anneliese Dodds met with business owners in Hebden Bridge today, and said there were questions to be answered over what the Government wanted to achieve with the various pots of cash targeted at specific areas which were announced on Wednesday.
And speaking to The Yorkshire Post after the event she said the approach was too short term to make any tangible difference.
The Government has come under fire after 40 out of the 45 towns deals announced in the Budget would see millions of pounds going to areas with Conservative MPs, while areas considered affluent or marginal seats were at the front of the queue for cash from the £4.8bn Levelling Up Fund.
Boris Johnson has suggested that because of the Tories’ success at the last election, it was the case that more areas were now represented by Conservatives.
And the leader of Richmondshire District Council - which was put in the top category for funding alongside areas such as Bradford and Doncaster - said it was wrong to suggest her area was without issues.
In an exclusive interview with The Yorkshire Post, Dr Dodds said: “I am really concerned that after 10 years, when we've seen a dearth of investment, when we haven't seen that investment going into Yorkshire that was needed, that now we have this approach from Government of different pots that are bidded in to with the criteria and the rules being very unclear.”
And she said that this was even more relevant in Yorkshire, after it was suggested by professional services giant EY that the region would take longer to recover economically than other parts of the country.
“My concern is that it may be a more politically driven approach when it should be an economically driven one and one focused on improving people's living standards,” she said.
It has been suggested that the mere fact that areas represented by Conservative MPs have been awarded investment was proof that due to overwhelmingly voting for the Tories at the last election, the public was getting improvements to their area.
When presented with that suggestion, Dr Dodds said: “I would really draw attention to what has happened over the last 10 years because we've not seen that investment going in.
“And unfortunately, the Conservative government's record has been appalling, so often making announcements and not actually following through, and I would say people should be led by what's actually been delivered and will be delivered in the future.”
Chancellor Rishi Sunak has faced criticism after Richmondshire, in his North Yorkshire Richmond constituency, appeared in the top priority category despite being among the top fifth of most prosperous places in England by the average deprivation score.
And Dr Dodds said: “They've got to be open about whether they've been driven by needs during this process, whether they really think their approach to investment is sustainable, and it's actually going to be delivering those local jobs, and supporting local businesses and building our recovery.”
But leader of Richmondshire District Council Angie Dale said the reality of life was far removed from the affluent image that many people have about the area covering the northern part of the Yorkshire Dales.
She said the agricultural district had a "really low-wage system" and that its deprivation statistics were skewed by the presence of Catterick Garrison, the largest military base of its kind in Europe.
And she said the "deeply rural" nature of the area and its sparse population, with a lack of affordable housing, means young people were increasingly moving out which had an impact on the viability of local schools and high streets.
She told The Yorkshire Post: "It frustrates me that people have this perception of Richmondshire and it's the bloody castle, that's not right. I'm working on the front line here with people and that's not what we see around here.
"I do really take umbrage because I go to Sheffield. I go to York, I go to all these places for leaders meetings and I think 'God they've had so much money spent on them'.
"I've been an elected member now for 10 years, and I can't remember the last time we got anything like this. And I just have to say, hats off, thank you Rishi, and he shouldn't be penalised for supporting not just his area but that rural element as well. It's about time we were recognised in this part of rural England."
Coun Dale, an independent who became leader of the council in 2019, pointed to the fact that a food bank had been set up in the area because of Covid-19. This led to a 'food share project' being created which now feeds 70 to 80 families a week.
She said: "These are people on the back foot, they've got their own homes and have a choice to either pay the mortgage or eat. And it's very simplistic. So I see this every day, the changes."
Dr Dodds said Labour was not calling for money to be taken away from any area but she said figures showed Richmondshire had the second lowest number of unemployment claims in the country, and was 300th out of 381 areas in terms of child poverty.
“I want to see that support for areas that have got high levels of unemployment as well,” she said.
“It's not about taking it away from areas that are benefiting, but it's about really understanding why the Government is taking these decisions, whether it's really strongly focused on our economic recovery, or otherwise, and it doesn't seem to have that focus, and that's a big problem.
“I think if we're talking about driving economic growth, really we need to be focused on making sure investment actually delivers.
“You think about, for example, an area like Kirklees, which is about 35 per cent of children living in poverty, but it's actually into priority two as an area, I think a lot of people will be scratching their heads. Again, comparison with Richmondshire, which is 22 per cent of its kids growing up in poverty - by the way, I think that's far too many, one in five is pretty atrocious - and it's not a question about saying the areas that have received funding shouldn't have got it.
“It's about Government having a long term plan, they're so short term, they need to have a long term plan to actually drive our economic recovery and to face up to those regional inequalities.”
She added: “What are these funds actually intended for that government has been setting out? And how can we deal with those long running problems that have been holding our economy back and our whole country back in terms of our families and communities?”
The Prime Minister said on Thursday: “I’ve asked about this and I’m told that the criteria was entirely objective – it takes in data on poverty, employment and so on.”
While Mr Sunak, in a post-Budget press conference, said the categorisation of the priority list for the levelling up fund was “based on an index of economic need, which is transparently published”, although a document published on Budget day said this would be revealed “shortly”.
A Treasury spokesman said: “The bandings do not represent eligibility criteria – and money will be allocated to the areas most in need. Further technical details will be published by the government in due course.”