Rishi Sunak insists Stoke-on-Trent will 'continue to be a priority focus'

Rishi Sunak insists Stoke-on-Trent will not miss out if key levelling up funding is used for a new National Service scheme. The Prime Minister said the Conservatives were still committed to boosting Stoke-on-Trent's economy during an election campaign visit to the city today (May 28).

Over the weekend the Tories announced their National Service plans, which would require all 18-year-olds to either serve in the armed forces for a year or volunteer in their communities for one weekend a month. Funding for the £2.5 billion-a-year scheme would partly come from winding down the UK Shared Prosperity Fund - described as a 'central pillar' of levelling up - in 2028.

Stoke-on-Trent was allocated £9.5 million over three years in the first round of UKSPF, with the cash going towards projects such as training schemes and grants for community groups. But Mr Sunak, during a campaign stop at Churchill China in Tunstall, claimed that Stoke-on-Trent would not lose out with the shuttering of UKSPF, pointing to other levelling up funding schemes and saying that National Service itself would also benefit people in the city.

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He said: "Stoke-on-Trent will continue to be a priority focus for me and the Conservative government. People can see that we care deeply about spreading opportunity here in Stoke-on-Trent. Not one, not two, but three Levelling Up deals I remember announcing as Chancellor, including the Goods Yard development, Kidsgrove Sports Centre being reopened through the Towns Deal, investing more in local transport, healthcare, 500 Home Office jobs here, more police officers on the street.

"So there are lots of different ways we do Levelling Up - that will continue under a Conservative government. I think I visited Stoke-on-Trent more times than any other place when I was Chancellor, so that should give people reassurance that I will continue to be committed to it.

"But more broadly, I think National Service will be fantastic for young people and Stoke, and the West Midlands. It will give young people skills and opportunities that will benefit them for life, and actually that's one of the objectives of the UKSPF."

Last week the government confirmed that Stoke-on-Trent would receive £20 million of Levelling Up Partnership funding, to support projects as the restoration of Burslem Indoor Market.

The city had previously been allocated £56 million of levelling up cash for major regeneration projects, although only one of these - the Goods Yard, in Stoke - has made real progress, with £34 million still unspent at the start of the year.

Mr Sunak insisted that levelling up was working. He said: "Whenever I'm here and talking to people, what I'm actually hearing from them is that after years and decades of neglect under Labour, they can really see that things are changing for the better, because under the Conservatives they can see that investment is now coming in. Of course there's more work to do, I'd be the first to say that, but people know that progress has been made."

Stoke-on-Trent North Conservative MP Jonathan Gullis, who will be hoping to retain his seat in the July 4 general election, blamed Covid and the war in Ukraine for delays in Stoke-on-Trent's levelling up projects.

He said: "I get people's frustrations and don't deny that things haven't happened as quickly as they'd like, but I think the public are fully aware that when you have a global pandemic and then war in the Europe for the first time since the end of the Second World War, some things have had to go on the back burner."

During his visit to Churchill China, Mr Sunak was given a tour of the factory and took part in a Q&A session with staff.

Churchill worker Dawn Condliffe suggested that the National Service scheme could be broadened out to include older people - such as her sons, aged 20 and 29 - and former convicts. Speaking after the Q&A, she said: "I personally think national service would be a good idea for some young people, giving them more structure to their lives. A lot of them get involved in things like crime because they don't have that structure and discipline."

Churchill China chief executive David O'Connor asked about technical education, telling Mr Sunak that his company faced a 'skills gap' in its recruitment, particularly in terms of engineering and materials science. In response, Mr Sunak spoke of his plan to require all pupils to study maths up to 18, and new bursaries for trainee teachers.

Stoke-on-Trent North is set to be a key battleground between the Conservatives and Labour in the general election, after the Tories took the seat for the first time ever in 2019. Candidates that have been declared for Stoke-on-Trent North so far are: Karl Beresford (Reform UK), Jonathan Gullis (Conservative), Josh Harris (Green), David Williams (Labour), and Carla Parrish (Workers Party).

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