The Levelling Up Fund in Newcastle: What’s all the fuss?
Here’s what the Levelling Up Fund is all about, which projects have been funded and what MPs are saying
The Fund is an attempt to help decentralise power and allow local areas to take greater control on how their lives should improve.
As the Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak writes, it is "intended to support investment in places where it can make the biggest difference to everyday life, including ex-industrial areas, deprived towns and coastal communities".
It's an important part of the Tory leadership as the government was elected with a mandate to 'level up' the UK in 2019.
All regions are able to benefit from the fund, but the North East is one particular part of the country most in need of the extra cash injection - now more so than ever after being badly hit by the pandemic.
However, two years on from the announcement many are questioning whether the Levelling Up Fund shows a true desire to better communities or if it just, perhaps, a means of virtue signalling - some argued Boris Johnson's decision to ask a crowd in South Shields for their thoughts on Peppa Pig World, which is 330 miles away in Hampshire, showed the disregard he held for the area.
A recent White Paper published on the Fund looked deeper into how the figures actually translate.
It found that the £0.5 billion allocated to the North so far adds up to an investment of £32 per person in the region.
It sounds promising, but the Paper goes on to point out that the annual council service spending per person has fallen £413 over the past decade.
Speaking on the matter, MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, Chi Onwurah told NewcastleWorld: “In the last decade the Tories have stripped the North East and other regions and nations of the UK of funding and power.
"As the IPPR report shows, the Tories are taking with one hand and giving tiny amounts back with the other.
"The Tories simply do not care about the needs of the North East.
"Over the last 40 years, the North East has not had a fair deal. Good jobs have left and never been replaced.
"Young people have had to move away from the region and their loved ones, just to find decent opportunities.
"Spending power leaves with them, causes high streets to collapse, local institutions to decay and transport networks to close down."
So, how does the £4.8 billion Levelling Up Fund work anyway?
Each local authority, such as Newcastle, is able to submit one bid for funding to the Government for every MP they have.
For Newcastle, that means four bids per round.
Bids can ask for up to £20 million of funding and must provide a minimum of 10% match funding.
The first round of grants was awarded last year, with two of Newcastle's four projects accepted, and the timetable for the next round is yet to be confirmed.
The four projects submitted by Newcastle City Council in 2021 were:
Grainger Market and Old Eldon Square - "to secure the future of two of the city’s most iconic and treasured assets".
Outer West Leisure Centre - "to support the development of a new leisure facility in the Outer West of Newcastle".
North bank of River Tyne - "to support the Tyne-based offshore and subsea industries".
Tyne Bridge Restoration - "to completely refurbish the grade II listed Tyne Bridge".
The Government accepted the Grainger Market and Outer West Leisure centre bids, rejecting the other two.
Whilst the funding for any improvement is, of course, welcome on Tyenside, the Government has come under criticism for thinking the Fund will solve all of the region's problems.
The application process is long and tasks Newcastle leaders to prioritise just four sole items for Levelling Up funding at a time.
MP for Newcastle upon Tyne North, Catherine McKinnell said: "Not only does this agenda fail to empower regions and localities, but overstretched North East local authorities, who have seen 12 years of disproportionate cuts and high levels of child poverty, are being forced to spend valuable time and resources competing against each other for Government funding.
"I of course welcome the success of the bid for a new leisure centre in the Outer West of Newcastle, after a campaign I led in Parliament.
"However funding a handful of projects is no substitute for addressing the deep inequalities and chronic under-investment that persists in the North East."
Last week, NewcastleWorld was in the Newcastle city centre asking people on their opinion on investment in the area.
Where some did praise the area's transport links, a number commented on parts of the city being run down after years of neglect.
Peter agreed with the neglect MPs have talked about, he said: "I think there needs to be more investment in the North East.
"I think the North East has been let down for so many years up until now."
Others spoke of "rundown areas" and said "the Metro could do with an uplift".
Joyce and Helen added: "I think there should be more investment.
"There's a lot of deprived areas.
"Invest in police, invest in local services, social housing."
The locals are right in pointing where the city is lacking money.
Nexus, who run public transport in the area, is investing a great deal into improvement works and a new fleet of trains, but are in limbo over their funding.
The travel operators have forecasted a staggering £21.2 million shortfall for the next financial year.
For Nexus, recent Covid setbacks have been compounded by the imminent withdrawal of emergency funding and the unknown of whether that will change - hence the upcoming rise in Metro prices.
Cllr Martin Gannon, Chair of the North East Joint Transport Committee, said: “Covid-19 has decimated the economics of public transport and we urgently need the Government’s help to get through it.
"Without that help there will be devastating cuts to public transport services – the complete opposite of what we want to achieve.
“I spoke to the Government Minister responsible for local transport in December and although she acknowledged the issue, she was not able to commit at that point to the continuation of Covid-19 funding beyond March."
Police and Crime Commissioner, Kim McGuinness added: “Sustainable travel options like the Metro need to be grown and developed not left facing 40 per cent cuts or even potential closures.
“If the Government doesn’t go back on this we could have a real transport crisis on our hands. Local people don’t need this.
“It really is just another example of the North South Divide. No HS2 Eastern leg, no Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR). The list goes on. Once again I ask what levelling up is happening? I just don’t see it.”
This is the difficulty some say the Levelling Up Fund provides.
Those behind the bids must choose between cultural projects such as the Leisure Centre, business-minded boosts such as the Grainger Market works or infrastructure improvements such as the Metro.
In reality, after a turbulent time, they all need a helping hand.