Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities permanent secretary Jeremy Pocklington has told MPs that work on Boris Johnson’s flagship drive to boost left-behind communities is unchanged following new PM Liz Truss’s arrival in Downing Street.
However Pocklington made repeated references to the growth-focused vision set out by Truss in her bid to become Conservative Party leader – and echoed today by chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng in his mini-budget – when he appeared before members of parliament’s Public Accounts Committee yesterday.
He also suggested that the multi-faceted cross-departmental drive – aimed at improving job opportunities, infrastructure and health outcomes in less-affluent parts of the nation – could be subject to some change.
Pocklington’s observations came in response to a question from committee member Olivia Blake, who asked whether DLUHC’s focus on levelling up and related priorities remained the same under Truss’ new administration.
“We’re very much continuing our mission on levelling up as a department,” he said. “The prime minister has been very clear that she wants to see jobs and growth in every town and city in the country. That is entirely consistent with levelling up.
“We are also continuing with our work delivering funds … making further devolution deals. There is a lot of action that has recently been announced and is also in the pipeline.
“I’m sure that every new government, every new administration would want to put its own emphasis on… and do things slightly differently. I’m sure in due course that will happen. But the focus on growth in all parts of the country is something we remain focused on.”
Pocklington was asked whether there had been any hold-ups with levelling-up funding due for distribution, or any changes in the accountability arrangements for the 12 missions set out in this year’s levelling up white paper.
“We are continuing with all our funds. Nothing has changed on delivery of our funds to date,” the perm sec said.
“There hasn’t been any change to the accountability arrangements for those missions.”
He said DLUHC was still responsible for the housing, leadership, pride-in-place, and wellbeing economic growth missions, with cross-departmental joint-working continuing on other missions.
DLUHC’s predecessor department, the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government, came under fire from the Public Accounts Committee two years ago for its handing of the £3.6bn Towns Fund, which was an early part of the levelling-up agenda.
In particular, MPs raised concerns about a lack of transparency over the selection criteria used to evaluate bids to the fund, and the fact that ministers were involved in selecting recipients – fuelling accusations of political bias.
Sheffield Hallam MP Blake asked Pocklington why DLUHC had ruled out the idea of blind bidding for future allocations of Towns Fund successor the Levelling Up Fund.
“We don’t think it’s practical to have completely blind bidding for the Levelling Up Fund,” he said.
“That’s because our wider considerations that we take into account, clearly set out transparently at the start of the bidding process, allow a degree of judgment to be made about the geographical spread within and between regions, and also allow the government to take into account investment in past projects, so it’s not the case that it’s always the same places receiving the benefit of those bids.”
Pocklington said the department had looked at ways to obscure the precise location of bid areas from ministers – possibly by putting dots on a map to represent areas without naming them. But he said that in practice it would still be obvious.
“We think we’ve got the balance right on this, with criteria but also a degree of discretion for ministers,” he concluded.