Rishi Sunak said northern England was “disproportionately” benefiting from “levelling up” funding and denied suggestions schemes were being picked to shore up support for Tory MPs.
As part of the latest £2.1 billion of support for projects, almost £362 million will be spent in London and the South East, while £354 million will go to the North West.
But on a visit to Lancashire to promote the funding announcements, Mr Sunak said there was a “huge” difference in funding on a per capita basis, with the North West coming out on top.
“We are completely committed to levelling up across the United Kingdom,” he said.
“If you look at how we are spending this money, it is disproportionately benefiting people in the North East, the North West, and that’s great.”
He denied the funding allocations were motivated by an attempt to shore up support in southern Tory seats.
“I think around half the funding we have announced over the course of today, or both funds, has actually gone to places that are not controlled by Conservative MPs or councils,” he said.
“I don’t think anyone can say it’s being done on that basis, there’s a completely objective, transparent criteria.”
He said that around two-thirds of levelling up funding was going to the most deprived parts of the country.
A regional breakdown of the funding shows:
– Yorkshire and the Humber: £120,619,162
– West Midlands: £155,579,834
– Wales: £208,175,566
– South West: £186,663,673
– South East: £210,467,526
– Scotland: £177,206,114
– Northern Ireland: £71,072,373
– North West: £354,027,146
– North East: £108,548,482
– London: £151,266,674
– East Midlands: £176,870,348
– East: £165,903,400
Projects in the latest round of levelling up fund allocations included a £19 million regeneration scheme in Mr Sunak’s Richmond, North Yorkshire constituency.
The Prime Minister defended the regeneration of the Catterick Garrison high street, saying the funding would deliver the amenities needed by troops living there: “I’m really grateful to all our armed forces personnel for the incredible job that they do and I’m delighted that this investment will support them.”
He added that the fund would boost growth and “make sure people feel enormous pride in the places that they call home” and could allow people to stay closer to where they grew up without feeling the need to move to the capital.
Mr Sunak, who was criticised for using a jet to get to Lancashire rather than relying on the train, toured Accrington market before heading to Morecambe, where £50 million will support the Eden Project North attraction.
During a walkabout on the site of the project, one passer-by shouted: “Lend us 20 quid for my heating bill, Rishi.”
Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove said the latest round of investment is “specifically tilted towards the North, the Midlands, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland”.
Analysis in The Times indicated 52 Tory constituencies in England benefit – more than twice as many as those represented by Labour MPs.
Mr Gove told Times Radio: “I think more of the money is going to Labour-led local authorities than to Conservative-led local authorities and that’s because the money’s been allocated according to a set of objective criteria and on the basis of deliverability.”
Concerns over favouritism were heightened by leaked footage of Mr Sunak at a summer garden party in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, telling Tory members how as chancellor he had channelled funding away from “deprived urban areas” to “make sure areas like this are getting the funding they deserve”.
But Mr Gove said he did not think it was “quite right” to infer a tilt away from funding for the North from Mr Sunak’s comments, arguing he was simply pointing out that areas in the South East also need investment.
“There are areas of deprivation in London and in the South East, particularly along the Kent coast, that we do need to invest in,” the Levelling Up Secretary said.
But the scheme was criticised by the Conservative West Midlands Mayor Andy Street, who said “the majority” of his regions bids for funding had been rejected.
“Fundamentally this episode is just another example as to why Whitehall’s bidding and begging bowl culture is broken, and the sooner we can decentralise and move to proper fiscal devolution the better,” Mr Street said.
The £2.1 billion allocated to more than 100 projects comes from the overall £4.8 billion levelling up fund announced in 2020.
Shadow communities minister Alex Norris told MPs there was a “rock-bottom allocation for Yorkshire and the Humber, nothing for the cities of Birmingham, Nottingham and Stoke, nothing for Stonehouse in Plymouth, a community in the bottom 0.2% for economic activity.
“But money for the Prime Minister’s constituency, money for areas in the top quartile economically. What on earth were the objective criteria used to make these decisions?”
Shadow levelling up secretary Lisa Nandy said the fund was a “Hunger Games-style contest” which only offered a partial refund for resources stripped out of communities through austerity measures.