Ministers have proclaimed the first round of the £2bn Local Growth Fund as the centrepiece of a new decentralised approach. But many of the projects receiving money are reheated old schemes which central Government ditched over 20 years ago in the face of widespread public opposition.
If the growth fund is really to signal a different way of doing things, future rounds will need to show more imagination, more diversity, and more local involvement than in their first iteration.
The Local Growth Fund was born from Lord Heseltine’s 2012 Leave no Stone Unturned report. A vision of how to rejuvenate local economies outside London (a passion of Heseltine’s since the 1980s), the report offered a picture of cities and regions struggling to get out of London’s shadow and held back by over-centralised political and economic structures. His prescription was to devolve new £50bn of Whitehall spending power to Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) who, it was argued, knew best what their local areas needed.
While the government seemed to approve of that principle, its funding commitment is much lower. The first round of the Local Growth Fund will distribute only £2bn, with some more being made available for indicative plans and future priorities. But if devolution of spending has fallen someway short of Heseltine’s hopes, so some of the first round of projects lack the imagination needed to get their local areas moving.
Campaign for Better Transport has welcomed investment such as the £200M for bus schemes, and the £18M revamp of Manchester’s Metrolink. But there are also a whopping 150 commitments for new and widened roads – accounting for nearly three quarters of the money available. Several of these are zombie roads dating back over 20 years and which have been proposed and abandoned before.
LEPs look to support projects to increase access to jobs, attract investment and tackle issues like congestion. Their strategic economic plans show they recognise the importance of investing in public transport, walking and cycling projects to achieve this. But talk is cheap and research we published last month highlights that under half of LEPs actually followed up warm words on sustainable transport with a commitment to investing in any schemes to deliver them. The result is that the joined up, accessible travel choices communities want are staying on the shelf while road developments that threaten green space and clean air are being dusted down.
Future rounds of the Local Growth Fund could still deliver investment which will reduce disparities in growth, support local economies while making transport more efficient and greener. The key to making sure better projects come forward is transparency. Less than two thirds of LEPs made their draft economic plans open to public scrutiny and only just over half ran a public consultation, which would help them find better ideas for projects which address local need and offer best value. Meanwhile, national government must provide support to prioritise smarter, sustainable transport planning.
There is a long way to go before the Local Growth Fund delivers the kind of growth communities want and need
- James MacColl is head of campaigns for the Campaign for Better Transport