West Midlands mayor Andy Street has said his criticism of the Levelling Up Fund allocations and “Whitehall’s bidding and begging bowl culture” was not intended to be a “rebuke” of the civil service.
In a statement last month, Street blamed centralised decision making for the region’s failure to secure more support in the latest round of allocations from the £4.8bn fund.
After £2.1bn of awards were announced in January, Street said he was concerned that the West Midlands’ recent successes with high-profile events such as the Commonwealth Games and Coventry’s City of Culture had been seen “as a reason to reject the majority of the region’s bids” to the Levelling Up Fund.
“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,” Street said.
“The centralised system of London civil servants making local decisions is flawed, and I cannot understand why the levelling-up funding money was not devolved for local decision makers to decide on what’s best for their areas.”
But Street has told CSW it was “certainly” not his intention to rebuke or attack officials.
“Without exception, all the civil servants I have come into contact with in my time as mayor have been committed to making people’s lives better in the West Midlands and across the UK,” he said.
In an email to CSW, the mayor said: “As some of your readers will know, I have been a longstanding supporter of the devolution of more powers and funding to the West Midlands and other regions across the UK. The Levelling Up Fund, with its model of local areas bidding and central decision making, went completely against the principle of devolution of decision making to local areas.”
“There are a great many allies of devolution in the civil service who see that supporting local areas to become stronger, more capable, and more self-sufficient is vital to achieving national policy objectives," he added.
“I would like to take this opportunity to thank all the civil servants who have supported the West Midlands, and I look forward to continuing to work closely with them.”
In his initial statement, Street said the region had won more than £4.5bn in government funding since 2017 and used it to bring in billions more in private investment – and that “it would be astonishing if this success had counted against us”.
Shortly after the last tranche of levelling up cash was distributed, ministers admitted they had decided to exclude first-round recipients from winning again in the second round after local authorities had already submitted their bids.
Members of parliament’s Public Accounts Committee said this had exacerbated their existing concerns about the lack of transparency surrounding funding decisions.
“You’ve done almost egregiously worse this time by saying ‘if you won in round one, you don’t win in round two’,” committee chair Dame Meg Hillier told Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities officials at a session last month.
“That wasn’t clear at the time that they bid, so they wasted time and money bidding for a round two bid when they’d already won in round one.”
During the session, DLUHC permanent secretary Jeremy Pocklington said he did not agree with Street’s assertion that the system is “broken”.
“The department is continuing to take action, as are the government, across the missions, for levelling up. As a result of the actions that we have taken, over 50% of the population now has a devolution deal. We have made considerable progress on that over recent months with the deals in the East Midlands, Norfolk, Suffolk, Cornwall and, to be confirmed very soon, the extension of the deal in the northeast,” he said.
He added: “In the department, we are continuing to deliver our funds… We have recently announced the £2.1bn-worth of [levelling up] funding, so we are continuing to take action on this. You are absolutely right that the economic circumstances are challenging but, in terms of the action that the department is taking, this remains a focus.”